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Coleridge, poetry and the ‘rage for disorder’.

By JAMES GALLANT.

I DISCOVERED “ORDER” was the dominant theme in art criticism while taking undergraduate classes in literature from Merle E. Brown. A student of early twentieth century Italian aesthetics, he had written admiringly1 of Benedetto Croce’s 1917-1918 essays on Ariosto, Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante. Those essays represented the successful literary work as a mini-“cosmos” in which some dominant feeling or outlook (e.g., willfulness in Dante, or irreducible conflict in Shakespeare) stood in dramatic “tension” with whatever opposed it. The orderly work was a discordia concours, a harmony of contraries.

cerisimilitude-slug B150Brown had allied himself with the “New Criticism” in mid-twentieth century in America and England. How important an influence Croce had been on the New Critics I do not know, but among them there was a good deal of talk like Croce’s. The idea of art as “order” turned up frequently in the poems of Wallace Stevens—a New Criticism idol. Austin Warren, a champion of the New Criticism with whom Brown had studied at Michigan, borrowed from Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” a phrase for the title of his 1948 collection of essays, Rage for Order.

The order of a work was not to be too facile. “Complexity,” “tension,” “ambiguity,” and “difficulty” were valued. Irony was good. R.P. Blackmur, one of the most respected of the New Critics, remarked somewhere in an essay that reading certain works one felt obligated to supply what the author had left out. (Brown once remarked to me that many of Walt Whitman’s finest short lyrics never appeared in student anthologies simply because they were too sweet and straightforward. They didn’t give professors of literature anything to discuss.)

WHERE THE IDEA of literary art as order was concerned, chapter fourteen of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (etext) was a touchstone. There “the poet described in ideal perfection” is said to “bring the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He defuses…a spirit of unity that blends, and (as it were) fuses each unto each.” The ideal poem is a “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative….a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order. All of this formed into one graceful and intelligent whole”—which sounds a lot like discordia concours. This was, Coleridge said, “the nature of poetry in the strictest sense of the word”—undoubtedly the kind Coleridge aspired to write himself—and, as to be discussed below, it had metaphysical implications.

Poems, like other works of art, have to make sense, more or less, if they are to sustain interest, but people are more likely to go to the arts for wildness than order. In a story or novel “something has to happen,” we say. We usually mean something surprising, something out of the ordinary, and probably disorderly. (A friend who read the early chapters in the first draft of a novel I had written complained, “It’s like waiting for a bus that never arrives.”)

Morse Peckham argued that the main locus of the “rage for order” was ordinary life, not art. Adhering to the rules and regimens of socio-economic life that enabled keeping body and soul together, people were likely to get their fill of order.

There were various twentieth-century theoretical challenges to the mid-century formalism. I will mention only one, for simplicity’s sake. In 1965, Morse Peckham parodied the title of Austin Warren’s 1948 Rage for Order in the title of his Man’s Rage for Chaos. Peckham argued that the main locus of the “rage for order” was ordinary life, not art. Adhering to the rules and regimens of socio-economic life that enabled keeping body and soul together, people were likely to get their fill of order. They went to the arts for relief from order: excruciating tragedy, comedy, nudity, loud and dissonant sound, foreign and decadent subjects, alienated populations, sudden reversals, filth, the occult, blarney. Reading a novel you could go “on the road” and drift from here to there with Jack Kerouac and friends. Leonard Bernstein conducting a symphony of Beethoven was, judging from his body language, experiencing more mood changes than many people do in a lifetime. There was the anguish of Oedipus, the war at Troy, the consuming passion of Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote’s grandiose nonsense, Raskolnikov’s murderous madness, the goofiness of Alice in Wonderland. Wallace Stevens’s poems have a good deal to say about “order,” yes, but there is also a lot in them about the value of the imagination for liquidating stifling, artificial orders; and there is nothing very orderly about his explosive scouting of realism in “The Emperor of Ice Cream”:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Here, Stevens isn’t exactly bringing “the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity.” (There does exist, by the way, an Empire Ice Cream Co.)

Why, asked Peckham, if works of art are to be conceived as “orders” should there have to be so many of them?

WHY, ASKED PECKHAM, if works of art are to be conceived as “orders” should there have to be so many of them? Why the constant demand for new works, fresh insights, and originality? An amateur musician, I can only stand playing pieces of a specific kind for so long before I wear them out and want something different. Why is it so interesting when a famous writer or painter abandons one style or content for another?

Peckham, following a lecture in which the idea of art as “order” had figured prominently, shook the lecturer by inquiring if chaos, rather than order, might not be the main thrust of art.

Peckham’s “rage for chaos” was valuable counterbalance to formalism’s emphasis on order. Still, most people working in the arts would agree, I think, that if a work is to sustain interest—theirs or an audience’s—things have to “hang together.” “Phenomenological” literary or musical works that imitate the drift of experience from one thing to another had better be brief and brilliant.

Everybody has “interesting” experiences and ideas that might be worked up in art. A character in Sherwood Anderson’s story “Paper Pills,” Dr. Reefy, is always having bright ideas. He jots them down on scraps of paper he sticks in a pocket. The literary equivalents of a visual artist’s quick sketches, the scraps accumulate and wad up-—“paper pills.” Eventually he just empties the pocket. That this habit was also Anderson’s would be a fair guess. If Reefy had sometimes dropped all his “pills” onto a desk, rather than into a wastebasket, and contemplated what linked one to another, he might have written stories, as Anderson did.

Mozart said in a letter to a friend that his musical ideas came to him “all in a stream.” He would “keep them in my head, and people say I often hum them over to myself. Well, if I can hold onto them, they begin to join on to one another, as if they were bits a pastry cook should join together in the pantry. And now my soul gets heated, and if nothing disturbs me the piece grows larger and brighter until, however long it is, it is all finished at once in my mind, so that I can now see it at a glance as if it were a pretty picture or a pleasing person. Then I don’t hear the notes one after the other, as they are hereafter to be played, but it as if in my fancy they were all at once”—like the cosmos past, present, and future in the mind of God.

I MENTIONED ABOVE that Coleridge’s ideal poetry that balanced or reconciled “opposite or discordant qualities” had metaphysical implications.

In chapter thirteen of Biographia Literaria he writes of the Primary Imagination and the Secondary Imagination. The Primary Imagination is the innate tendency of the human mind to order experience by associating one thing with another. The operations of the Secondary Imagination, the poet’s, presuppose the Primary Imagination. In the Secondary Imagination there is, Coleridge wrote in his Lay Sermons, “reason substantiated and vital [i.e. associated with imagery]. Here there is “more than usual order” combined with a “more than usual state of emotion.” The Secondary Imagination of the poet unites “the plenitude of the senses with the comprehensibility of the understanding.”

In Coleridge’s ideal poetry there could be “an actual participation of the finite mind in the activity of the infinite mind.”

In the course of my literary education I cannot recall anyone dwelling on the passage in chapter thirteen which represents the ordering work of the imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”—God. J. Robert Barth in an essay on Coleridge’s theory of the imagination2 writes with modern tentativeness, “Can a human [creative] action truly be conceived as of the same kind of activity as the divine act of creation? Coleridge clearly believed so.” In Coleridge’s ideal poetry there could be “an actual participation of the finite mind in the activity of the infinite mind.” Here there was, Coleridge wrote, “the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence from the glory of the Almighty.”

Coleridge proposed in chapter nine of Biographia Literaria, Thesis Six, that “if we elevate our conception to the Absolute Self, the great eternal I AM, then the principle of being and knowledge, of idea and reality–the ground of existence, and the ground of the knowledge of existence–are absolutely identical”; and Thesis Ten reads, “The true system of natural philosophy places the sole reality of things in an ABSOLUTE which is at once…subject and object, which it calls Nature, and which in its highest power is nothing else but self-conscious will or intelligence.” These presuppositions of traditional metaphysics, Coleridge associates with the Secondary Imagination. Coleridge’s ideal poetry (“poetry in the strictest sense of the word”) is capable of bridging the divide between the human mind and the Absolute.

Why this metaphysical aspect of Coleridge’s theory of the imagination has usually been ignored in our time is obvious enough: It offends what someone has referred to as the “anti-metaphysical orthodoxy.” The usual modern assumption is that a relationship relation between a Divine Mind—assuming one exists–and what goes on in the human mind is unimaginable. Immanuel Kant’s dichotomy of the Ding für uns (the thing-for-us) and the Ding an sich (the thing-in-itself) is often assumed to be responsible for this dissociation.

THE HUMAN MIND is in Nature, and observes its orders and regularities. That being the case, Western philosophy from the Greeks forward had commonly supposed that abstracting the essential principles of Being from phenomena might be possible. Nein, said Kant, and before him David Hume had written in an oft-quoted passage from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity, or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number [mathematical formulations]? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and confusion.”

We are capable of knowledge—but not the knowledge of what God had in mind in the Creation. If that is the case, simply ignoring the Creation becomes an option, and Kantian philosopher Johann Fichte (1762-1814) embraced that option. For Fichte, American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote, God lived in “every kindly friendship, in every noble deed, in every well-ordered society, in every united people, in every sound law, in every wise thought.” But the natural world, the Creation—that was just material for us to work up. “It gives one something to do,” as Royce said. So, “do we much care for those shadowy things-in-themselves? Perhaps they aren’t worth knowing. Perhaps they do not even exist at all [since] our inner world doesn’t contain them.”

Kant had encouraged Fichte’s career, but later found the implications of his thought repellent. We might not be able to fathom the Ding an sich, but Kant hadn’t doubted its existence and importance. All those asteroids, jellyfish, frogs, mountains, and mosquitos out there might not have anything to do with one’s personal projects and the life of the moral community. Surely, though, Royce said, they are not entirely devoid of interest? Coleridge was quite blunt about Fichte’s philosophy having “degenerated into a crude egoismus, a boastful and hyperstoic hostility to Nature as lifeless, godless, and altogether unholy.”

James Cutsinger has written3 of how problematic the dichotomy associated with Kant has been for theology, and thought more generally. Reality breaks in half. There is, on the one hand, “a region continuous with the self or subject, flowing under the direction of its own power and activity”—Kant’s Ding für uns; and, on the other, a region “discontinuous with the self or subject, possessing unknown and unknowable motions and configurations”—the Ding an sich, the Creation. From this dichotomy derive other oppositions: of reason and revelation, the secular and the sacred, the scientific and the religious, and the natural and the supernatural.

Few of the German Romantics at the end of the eighteenth century found Fichte’s isolation of consciousness from the Creation acceptable. Coleridge, like them, believed the Kantian dualism had to be surmounted. My knowledge of the German Romantics is slight, and what I say about them in what follows is mainly just repetition of what Royce wrote of Schelling, the two brothers Schlegal, Schiller, Tieck, and Novalis in his The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892). One might do worse than trust Royce (1855-1917), who had developed his own Absolute Idealism out of encounters with German philosophy.

Coleridge has been accused of plagiarizing poet-philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854). His own account of the matter in chapter nine of Biographia Literaria was that he had found in Schelling a “genial coincidence with much that I had toiled out for myself, and a powerful assistance in what I had yet to do.” Similarities in his thinking, and even phrasing, with Schelling’s had resulted from the two men having “studied in the same school,” and “been disciplined by the same preliminary philosophy…the writings of Kant.”

Schelling conceived the world as an hieroglyphic of the World Spirit, God’s thought become conscious of itself in materiality.

Schelling conceived the world as an hieroglyphic of the World Spirit, God’s thought become conscious of itself in materiality. For Schelling, as for Coleridge, the primary forces in both Nature and human intelligence were polar. Kant had represented the constitutive principles in matter as attraction and repulsion. Coleridge mentions his indebtedness to Giordano Bruno’s “polar logic.” Selfhood is born of interactions between subject and object, active and passive principles; and Coleridge’s ideal poem is a “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative….”

CONSIDERING THE MAGNITUDE of Kant’s thought, and the extent of its influence early in the nineteenth century, Coleridge’s description of it as “preliminary” may seem a bit odd. However, designating it so said a lot about the Romantics’ aspiration to bridge the gulf between the Ding für uns and the Ding an sich. All the Romantics, like Fichte, had Kant in their intellectual background. If the relationship between human consciousness and the “Absolute” was not thinkable, it might be experienced otherwise in ecstatic communion with Nature, romantic love, aesthetic experience, and descents into the mysterious Unconscious. A bit later the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), another Kantian, would posit in his “Essay on Spirit-Seeing” the existence of a “dream organ” capable of apprehending noumenal realities in apparitional forms. (There is evidence that Kant had himself entertained this possibility. He may well have been thinking of the spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg, his older contemporary, when he wrote in Anthropology in Pragmatic Perspective, 1798, that certain persons in deranged mental states might have visionary experiences that transcended the mind’s ordinary limits.)

Royce regarded Schelling as the most philosophical of the German Romantics apart from Hegel. Schelling’s ambition to repair the dichotomy between the divine and the human philosophically was undoubtedly noble, but he had not been the man for the job, in Royce’s estimation. Schelling shared with his wayward Romantic contemporaries the credo Royce sums up as “trust your genius; follow your noble heart; change your doctrine whenever your heart changes.” Schelling’s changed his pretty often, and as a result his philosophy was “kaleidoscopic”, each new essay differing from the one preceding, and not finally adding up to much.

Royce saw Hegel’s attempt to merge his understanding of the conflictive, transformative human spirit with a “theoretical account of Nature” as a failure.

Royce had much greater regard for Hegel (1770-1831), who had also looked to deep subjectivity to discern the human relation to the Absolute. He was a cooler character than Schelling, and less enamored of the je ne sais quoi than his Romantic contemporaries. His fundamental insight was that the attempt to achieve anything worthwhile—virtue, power, courage, knowledge—involved one in conflict. For Hegel, resistances had to be overcome; attaining virtue meant surmounting moral weakness; acquiring knowledge, one contended constantly with one’s own and other’s misconceptions. One became courageous by repressing fears. The more conflicts one experienced and overcame, the stronger the personality. Hegel extrapolated from this psychological insight his understanding of history and the evolution of civilizations: The human world was a scene of conflict and progression of ideas, thesis vying with antithesis, leading to synthesis. His Absolute Self, like the Jewish God, was a “Man of war,” a restless contradiction-rich Deity pressing forward from this to that, bringing good out of evil, evil out good. For Hegel, Royce wrote, “the total world of the interrelated [struggling] individuals is all that exists.”

THIS WAS MUCH more interesting than anything Schelling and the other Germans had proposed, but Royce saw Hegel’s attempt to merge his understanding of the conflictive, transformative human spirit with a “theoretical account of Nature” as a failure. There was still wanting a satisfactory philosophical account of the mind’s situation in the natural world.

Royce thought, however, that an accommodation between Hegel’s dynamic conception of the human spirit, and evolutionary themes in the natural sciences of nineteenth century, was conceivable. Astronomy was propounding, instead of a stable Creation, “a vast process of cosmic evolution.” Studies in embryology by Von Baer and Agassiz anticipated Haeckel’s catchy formulation, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” (The growth of the individual embryo summarizes the developmental history of life forms.) Geologist Charles Lyell concluded from his studies of the earth’s crust that our planet had evolved slowly across long stretches of time. Lyell, a friend of Darwin, assisted him and Alfred Russel Wallace in publishing early papers on natural selection, and Lyell eventually came to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. In other quarters, revolutions had disturbed the old European political orders, and in philological studies the idea of history had become dominant.

Had the theory of evolution been proposed in the eighteenth century, Royce wrote, it would have been ignored simply because the European mind at the time was focused on universals rather than transformations.

In Royce’s view, the ideas of change and of evolution in play everywhere in nineteenth century science, thought, and politics, not only facilitated Darwin’s discovery, but encouraged its acceptance. Had the theory of evolution been proposed in the eighteenth century, Royce wrote, it would have been ignored simply because the European mind at the time was focused on universals rather than transformations.

For Royce, the transcendence of the Kantian dichotomy was to be found not in Romantic irrationality, or some ideal Coleridgean poetry, but simply in the continuous, various but meaningful, linkages between human consciousness and the world. To represent human consciousness and community apart from the natural world, as Fichte had, ignored the obvious. In matters great and small, human consciousness and world were in a constant, consequential relationship. What held Royce’s attention were simple facts: The human mind exists in Nature and understands it in some measure. We may only know in part, but we are part of what we know. “The world” for us “is such stuff as ideas are made of.” The imponderable universe we glimpse in the night sky is our imponderable universe, our idea of it. No two persons’ or cultures’ experiences and ideas were ever identically the same, but Nature was flexible enough—generous enough, one might say—to respond to the varied outlooks and purposes and technologies of people. “The only thing sure from the first about this world… is that it is intelligent, rational, orderly, essentially comprehensible,” Royce wrote. We know this because the world responds to our thought and actions.

Moreover, it is in us, and perhaps creatures more or less like us elsewhere in in the cosmos, that Nature becomes conscious of itself. What was most startling about Darwin’s theory of evolution for Royce was not that humanity had evolved from the great apes, but that Nature had evolved a creature capable of understanding this had occurred. A myth created by the thirteenth century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi contemplates the mystery of consciousness in the world: God created the world and the creatures because he was lonely. “I was a hidden Treasure. I yearned to be known. That is why I produced creatures, in order to be known in them.” That God yearned to be known explains our yearning to understand the Creation.4 Royce had the same thought: “God, too, longs; because the Absolute Life itself, which dwells in our life, and inspires these very longings, possesses the true world, and is that world.”

The relationships and mutual influences of Nature and the human mind are not necessarily happy ones, of course–explain that as one may. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” In war, American Presidential elections, and other reversions to barbarism, the only pertinent ideas are the most ignoble ones. An overestimation of the power of human ideas to modify Nature with impunity can yield tragedies like those that supposedly overcame the technologically brilliant Atlanteans in the remote past. Mistaken views, like those that produced the American invasion of Iraq, can have unfortunate consequences. Abrupt disjunctions with past experience may overwhelm the adaptive capability of human intelligence in the experience of “culture lag,” and even induce psychogenetic death.

I BEGAN THIS essay discussing the idea that works of art arise from, and satisfy, a “rage for order.” I mentioned in this connection Coleridge’s theory of the Secondary Imagination, and his ideal poetry with its “subordination of [the soul’s] faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity…a spirit of unity that blends, and as it were fuses each unto each.” Such creative activity, the equivalent in the human spirit of the divine I AM’s creativity, had metaphysical implications for Coleridge.

Conceived as a general theory of the imagination in the arts, the limitations of what Coleridge proposed are fairly obvious. How it might be expected to apply to poetry other than the rather special, esoteric kind Coleridge aspired to write is unclear.

Conceived as a general theory of the imagination in the arts, the limitations of what Coleridge proposed are fairly obvious. How it might be expected to apply to poetry other than the rather special, esoteric kind Coleridge aspired to write is unclear. Barth’s notion that Coleridge’s theory of the imagination would be pertinent to discussions of painting or sculpture or music is also dubious.

On the other hand, a general theory of the imagination based on Peckham’s “rage for chaos” would be conceivable. In Peckham’s view, the “psychic insulation” of the arts allows for recreational escape from the narrow perspectives governing practical and moral life for truer amoral, Olympian perspectives—the human situation regarded sub species aeternitatis. The “polarities” in art Peckham would want to emphasize would be Ego and Id, waking and dreaming consciousness, Dionysian and Apollonian. So conceived the arts might be said to bring “the whole soul of man into activity” (Coleridge) but with outcomes often messier than Coleridge’s Apollonian “subordination of [the soul’s] faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity.”

However, construed in terms of Royce’s Absolute Idealism, that messiness might be seen as transcending the Kantian dichotomy. For Royce, the Absolute is simply the sum of any and all possible interactions, troubled or otherwise, conflictive or harmonious, between variable human consciousness and variable world. Brilliant works of art, whatever their genres, subjects, and characteristics, would then be regarded as particularly vivid expressions of the Absolute in which the Kantian dichotomy of Ding für uns and Ding an sich is overcome. As for the arts evoking “more than usual emotion,” as Coleridge said, that would be the result of their telling the truth about interactions between the human consciousness and the world, even when those are not characterized by “more than usual order.”

It’s a thought.


James Gallant is an independent scholar, the Fortnightly‘s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and the author of The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta and Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil? (forthcoming from Vagabondage). He has also written a collection of stories about historical classical guitarists, including Francesco Roberto, published in The Fortnightly Review.

NOTES.

  1. In Neo-Idealist Aesthetics: Croce, Gentile, Collingwood (1966)
  2. In “Theological Implications of Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination,” Studies of the Literary Imagination, Fall, 1986.
  3. “Coleridgean Polarity and Theological Vision,” Harvard Theological Review 76 (1983).
  4. From Henry Corbin’s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi.

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