Saturday, February 26, 2005

Week 05 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) shows the influence of Continental thinkers such as Kant, Schelling, and Schiller. English Romanticism is often cast as a strong, if at times complicated, reaction both against the materialist aspects of British empiricism (the doctrine that all knowledge derives from simple sensory experience), and especially against French rationalism (which suggests that that knowledge derives from reason, not sensory experience—“I think; therefore, I am”). Coleridge, like many of his contemporaries, opposes the mechanistic world view of Newtonian physics and the passivity of the psychological doctrines of Hobbes and Locke, according to which the mind, like a soft machine, merely receives and combines sense-data. For Coleridge, imagination is more than the faculty of combining ideas derived from sensory perception, just as memory, for his friend William Wordsworth, is more than Hobbes’ “decaying sense.” It isn’t that Coleridge or the other romantics have anything against close observation of the world around them; rather, they refuse to accept the notion--which could be derived from Blake’s unholy trinity of “Bacon Newton & Locke” if one were to read them unsympathetically--that mind is no more than mechanism and that nothing exists beyond the material world, leaving us with nothing but a contemptible “universe of little things.”

Coleridge tries to overcome the rift between mind and matter implied by the formula, cogito, ergo sum, positing a more vital and interdependent view of science, history, nature, artistic creation, and human potential. Since his thinking is indebted to many of the German idealist philosophers, it makes sense to offer a sketch of Immanuel Kant’s most important ideas. Kant (1724-1804), was born in Königsberg, Germany, in which city he remained to study mathematics, physics, and philosophy at university, and later to profess the latter subject himself. Although a quiet, untraveled man whose Enlightenment emphasis on reason hardly qualifies him as a romantic, he nonetheless provides later thinkers with the foundation for a fully romantic outlook. Kant is determined to avoid extreme tendencies in any brand of philosophy, whether that extremism comes in the form of radical skepticism or empiricism, absolute rationalism, or the metaphysical word-wrangling of the medieval scholastic philosophers. In Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781), he synthesizes the empiricism and rationalism that influenced his early thinking into a coherent theory of knowledge (that is, a coherent epistemology). Kant argues that humans have no direct access to the outside world. Presumably, there is a world out there, a “noumenal world,” but we have no direct knowledge of it, and no right to claim that we do. So much for the cruder type of empiricist who assumes too easily that he really does have some direct link with material objects; so much, also, for those who argue that there simply is no outside world. So how do we perceive things and know things? That question occupies the whole of the Critique of Pure Reason (often just called The First Critique), but I’ll only examine a few paragraphs from Kant’s Book I, “Transcendental Aesthetic”:

In whatever manner and by whatever means a mode of knowledge may relate to objects, intuition is that through which it is in immediate relation to them, and to which all thought as a means is directed. But intuition takes place only in so far as the object is given to us. This again is only possible, to man at least, in so far as the mind is affected in a certain way. The capacity (receptivity) for receiving representations through the mode in which we are affected by objects, is entitled sensibility. Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions; they are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts. But all thought must, directly or indirectly, by way of certain characters, relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us.
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In the transcendental aesthetic we shall, therefore, first isolate sensibility, by taking away from it everything which the understanding thinks through its concepts, so that nothing may be left save empirical intuition. Secondly, we shall also separate off from it everything which belongs to sensation, so that nothing may remain save pure intuition and the mere form of appearances, which is all that sensibility can supply a priori. In the course of this investigation it will be found that there are two pure forms of sensible intuition, serving as principles of a priori knowledge, namely, space and time. (trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1965.)
Kant says here that his analytical task is to strip away particular, everyday mental operations in order to isolate “sensibility”—the “capacity . . . for receiving representations through the mode in which we are affected by objects.” Having performed that reduction, Kant believes that he can posit “pure intuition” and its “forms of sensible intuition,” the categories space and time. He wants to show that these categories exist a priori (i.e., before any empirical experience) in the mind and that they necessarily structure the reception of objects. In Critical Theory Since Plato (Harcourt: San Diego 1971; the more recent edition does not contain the language below), Hazard Adams clarifies the Kantian transition from simple perception to higher thinking:

[Kant] proposed the existence of the “manifold of sensation,” the raw data collected and organized by the mind through the creative power of the sensibility. The sensibility abstracts from the manifold, formulating the world intellectually according to space and time, the a priori forms of consciousness . . . . we cast all our perceptions into the forms of space and time, which are the spectacles we all wear but can never remove. At a higher level, further removed from direct sensation, the power of the understanding comes into play and schematizes our sensible experience according to “categories”—unity plurality, totality, substance, causation, and so on. These categories govern our conceptual thought. (377)

This cautious formulation will have profound effects on later thinkers. In a sense, Kant is the Milton of philosophy—the figure whom interested parties will have to take into account when they set pen to paper concerning epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

We might make the same statement about Kant’s status in the branch of philosophy known as “aesthetics,” the study of the beautiful. In his third Critique, the Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant argues that when humans make judgments about beautiful objects, they do not make them with reference to any external standard or determinate purpose. So referring a pronouncement on natural or artistic beauty to some theory of imitation or to moral concerns will not do. Rather, a judgment that, say, a rose, a building, or a work of art is beautiful must be made with unbiased or disinterested satisfaction. Here is how Kant explains his point:

If anyone asks me if I find that palace beautiful which I see before me, I may answer: I do not like things of that kind which are made merely to be stared at. Or I can answer like that Iroquois sachem, who was pleased in Paris by nothing more than by the cook shops. Or again, after the manner of Rousseau, I may rebuke the vanity of the great who waste the sweat of the people on such superfluous things. In fine, I could easily convince myself that if I found myself on an uninhabited island without the hope of ever again coming among men, and could conjure up just such a splendid building by my mere wish, I should not even give myself the trouble if I had a sufficiently comfortable hut. This may all be admitted and approved, but we are not now talking of this. We wish only to know if this mere representation of the object is accompanied in me with satisfaction, however indifferent I may be as regards the existence of the object of this representation . . . . We must not be in the least prejudiced in favor of the existence of the things, but be quite indifferent in this respect, in order to play the judge in things of taste. (Adams 379-80; the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism pg. 506 offers a different translation of the passage.)

To say that a rose is beautiful, then, is fundamentally different from saying that it is good or sensually gratifying or useful. Such a judgment does not accord with the kind of moral condemnation of art we see in Plato, who claimed that artists, in copying “mere appearances” rather than authentic Forms, misled deluded spectators and listeners. (Plato’s epistemology is closely related to his ethics—to mislead a person’s eyes or senses is also to corrupt that person’s morals and citizenship ethos. For Plato, we arrive at truth not through the senses but through internal reflection, i.e. through the dialectical method of argumentation, and through recollection of ideal, eternal Forms.) Neither does Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment accord well with certain moral defenses of art—the Elizabethan Sir Philip Sidney’s, for example, which posits (drawing from Horace’s Ars Poetica) that the “speaking pictures” artists create fill us with the desire to behave virtuously. But in Kant’s view, we must judge of the beautiful with respect only to our disinterested pleasure in the presence of the thing we call “beautiful.” Without resorting to further technicalities, we can say that for Kant, what happens when we make a judgment that something is beautiful is that we experience what he calls “purposiveness without a [determinate or specific] purpose.” Aesthetic judgments offer us a way to experience the mind’s power over material nature and the allied realm of necessity, but without simply abandoning nature and taking flight into an arrogant overemphasis on the power of mind. In plain terms, aesthetic experience lets us take pleasure in a kind of freedom; it is a valuable part of life because it’s something we can do simply for its own sake, and not because it leads to some benefit such as profit, moral improvement, or anything of that sort. We don’t even have to desire that an aesthetic object exist to take pleasure in it—in fact, such a desire would disqualify our judgment of the thing as beautiful at all.

We can sum up as follows the threads in Kant’s philosophy later to be exploited by the romantics: firstly, Kantian epistemology, while making no attempt to bridge the gap between mind (subject) and world (objective realm), nonetheless concentrates acutely on the mental constructs whereby humans perceive and know. Without sacrificing the validity of the external world, Kant focuses on the constitutive power of mental experience. The mind actively construes what we call “reality,” whatever the ultimate truth about “reality” may turn out to be. In terms of aesthetics, Kant’s emphasis on the special quality of judgments about the beautiful opens up for later theorists an important claim—namely, that both art and the artists who create it deserve consideration because they have and provide access to a kind of freedom, a kind of autonomy, lacking in more immediately practical areas of life—politics, religion, economics, and so on. Art will soon be taken up, credibly or otherwise, as a means whereby rifts in the individual and in human societies may be made whole. Imagination, for Kant, may be straightforwardly “an active power or ability to structure the particular features of . . . [an] intuition in accordance with the structure of the concept [that it matches]” (Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987, pg. xxxv), but men like Schiller, Schelling, and Coleridge will soon argue that imagination is a truly creative, dynamic power which does not merely structure reality for the perceiving subject but which, to some extent, makes it, or at least participates in its making.

That comment brings us back to Coleridge’s speculations, most specifically to his ideas about imagination in Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14. The book as a whole is a sprawling masterpiece of the sort that only Coleridge could have produced. It contains much material assimilated from several Romantic authors—amongst them Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Schiller. Most instructive for us is the following passage, in which Coleridge goes far beyond Kant’s modest claims about the creative powers of the mind:

The imagination then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. // Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. (Norton Criticism 1st ed. 676-77, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 477-78.)

Here Coleridge appears to be identifying as the “primary imagination” the basic capacity of the mind to participate in the creation of the world around it. In order to see how Coleridge has expanded Kant’s term “imagination,” we must examine that term in a little more detail than we have yet done. In his “Introduction” to Critique of Judgment, Werner Pluhar explains the Kantian imagination’s function:

If an empirical judgment consists in the awareness that an empirical intuition matches some concept, how did that match come about? The data we receive passively through sensation are structured in terms of space and time and thus become an empirical intuition. If this intuition is to match a concept, we must have an active power or ability to structure the particular features of that intuition in accordance with the structure of the concept; this power is what Kant calls our “imagination.” The imagination “apprehends” (takes up) what is given in intuition and then puts together or “combines” this diversity (or “manifold”) so that it matches the concept. (xxxv)

The Kantian imagination, then, allows us to verify that there is a basic harmony between mental categories and, if not the “real world,” then at least our sensory experience of it. Coleridge’s imagination, however, gives us access to something more: it reveals that the mind participates in the creation of the world. While Kant had implied that “one can neither think without an object nor prove that objects in themselves exist independently of thought,” Coleridge comes much closer to saying that imagination can, at least for an instant, overcome the distinction between self and world; it can fuse subject and object into a unified whole. Coleridge describes the “primary” imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.” God, the infinite Mind in Coleridge’s view, is pure Being. In Genesis, God’s creation of the universe is cast in terms of a grand perlocutionary “speech act” (“Let there be light,” and so on). The world was spoken into existence, and its continued existence implies that all creation is the perpetual unfolding of God’s Word.

Consider also how God, in Exodus, answers Moses when the latter asks how he should speak of God to the Israelites: “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you (3:14). So God has given his answer to a question of self-consciousness. He says that he is pure existence. He thinks about himself, engages in an act of self-consciousness, and says, “I am that I am.” On our less exalted, finite scale, we can say that in any act of perception, imagination is involved—something creative happens. Whatever John Locke and other empiricists may have thought, even the simplest kind of perception is not passive. Imagination is the creative, synthesizing power that operates in all human perception. Take this sentence: “I see a tree.” The positing of the “I” is an act of self-consciousness. The subject is aware of itself as it confronts an object of experience (such as a tree), and in fact the initial distinction between subject and object, between (in Emerson’s terms) the “me” and the “not me,” is vital. A fully human perception requires a synthesis of subject and object. Perhaps we can say, therefore, that the primary imagination is the miracle of consciousness itself, which, for human beings, turns out to involve self-consciousness as well.

But what about Coleridge’s “secondary imagination”? We recall that he writes in Chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria of two kinds of imagination, not just one:

The secondary … [imagination] I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all events, it struggles to idealize and to unify. (Norton Criticism 1st ed. 676, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 477.)

The secondary imagination is the poetic imagination. It is a purposive, directed “echo” of the primary imagination’s power, and it works creatively upon phenomenal experience to generate new meanings. Poetic imagination "dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates in order to re-create" something genuinely new. (In this, it differs markedly from the operations of the “fancy,” which only rearranges prefabricated, stale perceptions into predictable patterns, in accordance with the empirical view that ideas are mechanically “associated” with one another to form complex combinations.) A concrete example of Coleridge’s “secondary imagination” will serve us best: how about a few of Wordsworth’s short lyric poems? Consider “She dwelt among the untrodden ways”—the speaker describes Lucy as “A violet by a mossy stone, / half hidden from the eye, / Fair as a star, when only one / is shining in the sky.” Wordsworth has placed two very different natural phenomena alongside each other, but now we understand that something vital connects them—the earthly flower and the heavenly star share something with each other. They shared something with Lucy, too, when she was alive, and they come together again in the speaker’s imagination now that Lucy is gone. In Coleridge’s view, a poet like Wordsworth can “dissolve, diffuse, and dissipate” our ordinary ways of looking at objects and even human beings, encouraging us to see that the world need not be thought to consist of an aggregation of lifeless or self-contained objects with no connection to one another. Some critics have even said convincingly that Coleridge’s terminology is partly drawn from the ancient language of alchemy, whereby ordinary matter is transformed magically (by incantation and ritual) into precious materials such as gold. Another example of this romantic alchemy would be Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper,” where the song of an ordinary Highland Lass commands the speaker’s attention, and, “the vale…overflowing with the sound” of her unselfconscious voice serves as the vehicle for the speaker’s own exotic flights of imagination into distant lands and strange, yet appropriate, comparisons between the human voice and the sounds of the natural world. At his best, Coleridge might say, Wordsworth breaks up, conjoins, and reconciles disparate categories of perception, feeling, and experience. The result is a fresh new way of understanding ourselves and the world around us.

In both poems that I have mentioned, the poet has made free choices; as Coleridge would say, the secondary imagination coexists with the conscious will. This does not necessarily mean that the source of poetry is available to us—a reading of “Kubla Khan” should convince us otherwise—but rather that this power operates alongside of the conscious will. The esemplastic (“molding into one,” Coleridge’s coinage from the Greek) or imaginative power generates complex unities but does not simply cancel distinctions -- good symbolic language depends upon dynamic tension, as the New Critics or formalists say. The poet’s imagination brings together and synthesizes ideas, emotions, and sense perceptions, and integrates them into an organic whole. Lucy is a star, a violet, and just Lucy all at once, and not simply in a mechanical way. The poet’s imaginative act generates a Lucy-star-violet, and we, as well, can understand and feel what Coleridge would call the "multeity in unity" of such a new symbolic creation.

Ultimately, with regard to “secondary imagination,” it might be said that the creative acts of the poet’s mind do not merely imitate the processes of external nature; those creative acts actually repeat natural—i.e. divine—process. We are no longer dealing, as in earlier times, with a merely mimetic, mechanical doctrine about art; there is an organic likeness between art and the divine processes of nature. When Milton’s Satan says early in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place,” the context makes it clear that Milton puts the statement down to heresy; when Coleridge makes a similar point, we take him as a romantic theorist.

If Coleridge ascribes such creative power to the poetic imagination, what of the written works poets create? This question brings to the fore two central issues in romantic literature: what is the relationship between imaginative acts and language (both spoken and written), and what is the communal or social value of the British romantics’ favorite kind of art, poetry? The two questions turn out to be related, but let’s begin with Coleridge’s commentary on the symbol. In The Statesman’s Manual of 1816, Coleridge makes a key distinction between mechanical allegory and living symbol:

Now an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses . . . . On the other hand a symbol . . . is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative. (Norton Criticism 673, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 490)

The example Coleridge gives is as follows: “Thus our Lord speaks symbolically when he says that ‘the eye is the light of the body’” (Norton Criticism 674, Norton English Lit. 2A 7th ed. 490). That sentence is from the Gospel According to Saint Luke 11:34-35 , and the King James version runs, “The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. / Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness.” The “eye” here is obviously no mere body part—Jesus apparently means that the material eye is a spiritually energized, organic part of the living human body: if your spirit is unwholesome, you will pursue unwholesome objects; you will do evil with the body as your vital instrument. And as for the “translucence of the Special in the Individual,” one of my old professors’ favorite examples is drawn from Coleridge’s lecture on Romeo and Juliet in Volume 2 of Literary Remains: “The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakespeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class, just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,--so it is nearly as much so in old age” (Project Gutenberg edition). So the talkative, antic Nurse is both an individual and yet the very type of all nurses—she is fully individualized, and at the same time represents the species of nurses. That’s something we can probably say about a lot of Shakespeare’s characters and, by the way, I would recommend Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare highly—they remain wonderful reading and remarkably insightful criticism.

While allegory’s operations call to mind the associational epistemology of John Locke, who argued that all knowledge arises from, and then builds upon, sensory experience in combinatory fashion, the symbol appears, in Coleridge’s definition, to be invested with a being, an “ontological status” of its own. The poet’s imagination literally brings something vital into being—the linguistic symbol and the work of art as a whole. Only the symbolic work, in fine, puts readers in touch with an otherwise inaccessible reality; readers learn through poetry the power of their own minds to overcome the distinction between self and world outside, between the individual’s temporal limitations and eternity. In this way—through the symbolic poem—implies Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria Ch. 14, “[t]he poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity” (Norton Criticism 681, Norton English Lit. 2A, 482). Coleridge’s emphatic claims that the poet’s creative imagination serves as a unifying force for other human spirits, we can see by now, go much further than any of Kant’s remarks about the importance of aesthetic judgment in human affairs.

But what about the specifically linguistic quality of imagination’s products? What about the fact that a “poem,” by the time it gets to us, has gone from what the romantics generally call the stage of “composition” (by which they usually mean not writing the poem down but rather the act of original conception in the mind—as when Wordsworth says in his notes to “Tintern Abbey” that he composed the entire poem on his way home from his perch overlooking the Abbey and only later wrote it all down) to the different status of written language? Well, herein lies the rub of romantic poetics. A “symbol,” for Coleridge, isn’t just a lonely word, a closed and final unit of corrugated speech. It is not any dead thing, as a word tends to be considered in the classical disciplines of rhetoric and grammar. In rhetoric, the point is to arrange words into pleasing and convincing patterns—thus the division of rhetoric into ceremonial, forensic, and deliberative branches, depending on whether the speaker’s motive is to praise, to prove innocence or guilt, or to help others decide what course of action to pursue.

When we hear the term “symbol,” we tend to think of an emblem—as when we talk about “symbols on cave walls,” or of a standard literary device, as when we explain metaphor (or, more accurately in this case, simile—a close comparison between two things) by quoting the Robert Burns lines, “O my love's like a red, red rose / That's newly sprung in June.” We get it—lover = rose; something ineffable like the spiritual essence of one’s beloved is being compared to something we understand—a rose with its charming color, its beautiful form, and its pleasing perfume. In this way, a classical metaphor (even a fancy metaphysical one like John Donne’s “If they [our souls] be two, they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two, / Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show / To move, but doth if th' other do” in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”—is an explanatory device, not a profound, higher synthesis that reconciles “opposite and discordant qualities” into a dynamic symbolic unity. The fact that a simile by Burns is so commonly used as an illustration of metaphor drives the point home: in classical terms, the two serve much the same purpose of comparing unlike with like.

The Coleridgean symbol purports to be a living thing, if indeed we insist on calling it a thing at all—Coleridge writes that the symbol “is characterized by a translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative.” As Gerald Bruns explains in his book Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language: A Critical and Historical Study (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1974), romanticists construe language as a function, not a collection of isolated words, whether written or spoken. At their most optimistic, the romantic theorists tend towards an Orphic explanation of the word as a primal poetic utterance that reaches out to join the world and by no means simply describes inert external material things. So when, as in “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge says, “O lady, we receive but what we give / In our life alone does nature live,” we might well take “language” as integral to what Coleridge means by “life.” A symbolic utterance doesn’t refer to reality; it is indissolubly part of the reality it speaks; it has authentic being and isn’t just a dead code that points towards real beings. What language must express, therefore, is the inner workings of the imagination itself, the spiritual and vital dimension of human being.

Like most European philosophers, Coleridge privileges the notion of language as voice, as an utterance that remains close to the source of authentic being as grasped in continual and creative acts of self-positing. But we should—as the British romantics often do—acknowledge the doubt that shadows such radiant notions of self-present truth as their obverse: writing. Here we can borrow from the thought of Jacques Derrida, whose first major work, Of Grammatology, remains one of his most insightful and accessible alongside much excellent later work. As far back as Plato, the written word has been taken as subordinate to the spoken word, and the reason for this, though hard to accept, isn’t far to seek: it is painfully obvious that “texts” (even romantic ones about sky-larks and crumbling abbeys) are not in our control once they reach the handwritten or printed page. What Socrates says in the Phaedrus about the written word is true: it is always subject to an interpretation that has little or nothing to do with what we, the authors, originally meant, and if questioned, our written texts just go on repeating themselves in code-fashion—the same words in the same order, with the repetition getting us no closer to the writer’s intention than before. A written piece of language is rather like an orphaned child that doesn’t know its parents; it cannot offer you a further explanation if you should desire one. But if you ask the “parent” of a spoken utterance for clarification, you might get your wish. (See Phaedrus paragraphs 275-76 especially.)

The point is that the aristocratic philosopher Plato has found out the promiscuity of written language—it slips away from us all too easily and goes on signifying things we never meant it to signify. Just as the demagogues in Athens used to stir up the people and get them to betray the noblest political aims for crass self-interest and pleasure, so does the written text desecrate the carefully constructed temple of meaning: consciousness itself. The insight Derrida brings to this analysis of the relationship between speaking and writing is that what Plato wrote about writing is just as true about speaking: both are haunted by an absence at the very moment when the full presence of meaning seems nearest: the spoken word is no closer to an originating truth residing in human consciousness than is the written word. “Language” is something that, as a broadly accessible code, goes well beyond whatever is occurring in the head of the individual who speaks or writes. So the privileging of voice in philosophical discourse is symptomatic, we might say, of a deep need to repress a disturbing insight about our relationship to meaning that applies equally to what we write and to what we speak. The same would be true of romantic poetry, where so often the scene of writing is effaced and we are supposed to think of the poem as an actual utterance spoken by a lyric voice, as if the speaker or the author were actually here and talking conveying the words right into the depths of our souls. This insight makes for an immense complication of the entire philosophical project to build up systems of truth—something that Derrida, as he gladly admitted, is hardly the first person to have noticed.

If all of the above sounds rather abstruse, try the following generalized “consciousness experiment”: see if you can wrap your mind around your own thought processes of any complexity. I defy you to do it—you have no idea where your thoughts come from or why they come. Shelley’s wistful poem “We are as clouds” is right: in the revolutions of thought, “no second motion brings / one mood or modulation like the last.” You can hardly begin to control the process whereby thoughts present themselves to your consciousness, if that phrasing even makes sense. You have no more control over what goes on in your head than Plato says our author has over the texts he or she has written. What we mean by “meaning,” I suspect, is that ex post facto we interpret prior thoughts and say we “meant” such and such. And on the process goes, with no real beginning or end. We can find no originary source for our meanings—at least not one that comes from us as self-conscious, thinking individuals. And in Derrida’s view, there isn’t one in “language” as a supposedly integral system of meanings, either. For language isn’t such a system at all—construe it as the evidence of one gigantic superhuman consciousness as we will, language won’t deliver to us the full presence of consciousness to itself or a self-verifying, stable system of meaning; it never delivers on what we take it to promise: endless deferral and difference is our reward. This “reward” is by no means to be despised but in deconstructive terms, it remains our burden to admit that consciousness, far from being the cause of anything, is itself an effect of something we find very difficult fully to explain. That isn’t an invitation to cultivate the worship of mystery; it’s a challenge not to get trapped into taking our explanations about consciousness, truth, or language for the last word.

But let’s return to Coleridge’s notion of the symbol—it makes sense to admit that the above problem is exactly what Coleridgean symbolism is determined to bury. The symbol retains the power of voice that is in turn linked to unitary consciousness, or—since Coleridge was a Unitarian minister and no nature-worshiper—to the Truth we mean when we say “God.” I mentioned earlier that romantic poetry tends to efface its status as written word in favor of lyric utterance. This isn’t just a polite convention as perhaps it is for, say, Sidney or Wyatt when they create their anguished semi-Petrarchan speakers; the romantic symbol or poetic word is to work its magic upon our spirits, carrying alive into the heart the poet’s passions and expressive truth. The therapeutic power of romantic poetry depends largely on their validity of their model of consciousness and speech. Words bespeak our humanity in the deepest sense, and have a vital bond with the natural world. Imagination and symbol are beyond our ordinary relationship to consciousness and to language (respectively), and they have the capacity to revitalize and refresh those relationships, which, ultimately, the romantics hope will lead to renewal on both the individual and collective levels—and at the broad social level, we might just see a more harmonious society for all, without oppression, false distinctions of class, race, or gender, and without fanaticism or bigotry. “Meaning,” if we want to call it that, would become an agent of our liberation, not a vehicle for the perpetuation of social injustice and self-alienation. None of this is meant to carry forwards some naïve view of the romantics as gloriously optimistic children of hope and light—that isn’t what I find interesting about them at all; it is more a construction of modern critics (perhaps themselves a little naïve?) than the product of attentive reading of the major British or Continental romantics. What I find most wonderful about Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats is that in their respective ways, they all “know better” than to give us the sort of simple “primitivism” or poetic optimism we sometimes say they give us. Can you think of anyone who questions simplistic notions about language, consciousness, or social harmony more insistently than those same romantics? I find it hard to do. Nobody writes more eloquently about the brightest prospects for humanity’s future than, say, Shelley in Prometheus Unbound; but at the same time, nobody asks more searching questions about those prospects and the processes and media by which we set them forth, I should think, than did the romantics themselves. Both are good reasons—preferably taken together—to enjoy romantic poetry.

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