The Law of the First Person:
‘Little i will need to go from minuscule to majuscule
if it is ever to stand on the shoulders of giants
and begin to glimpse the horizon.’
By ALAN WALL.
COLERIDGE PUT THE matter thus:
My opinion is this: that deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling, and all truth is a species of revelation…It is insolent to differ from the public opinion in opinion, if it be only opinion. It is sticking up little i by itself, i against the whole alphabet. But one word with meaning in it is worth the whole alphabet together. Such is a sound argument, an incontrovertible fact.
We know of course that there can be no one word with meaning in it without a host of others signifying a myriad significations all around it, but Coleridge’s point is still a sound one. Raising the little i by itself, purely to set one disputatious opinion against others, is simply intellectual insolence. If you wish to counter scholarship, or even mere custom, you will need something stronger than ‘opinion’ with which to effect the contradiction. Intellectual democracy is not a matter of statistics; authority is required if a given position is ever to be made tenable.
Coleridge’s ‘little i’ might not have grown any bigger since his time, but it has certainly not grown less in number. Its programmatic assumption is that any serious change in intellectual position might take the form of a glissade, whereas it is in fact always an arduous ascent. Or perhaps an arduous descent. Either way, a cost will be involved for the climber. Modern physics teaches us that no change of position is ever possible without an exchange of energies. Little i will need to go from minuscule to majuscule if it is ever to stand on the shoulders of giants and begin to glimpse the horizon.
Constructing and Deconstructing the Ego
SO WHAT IS the ‘I’ anyway, whether upper or lower case? What does it mean to speak in the first person after Freud? How commanding is that majuscule pronoun? And how many little i’s are in truth swarming inside it, like ants in an anthill, but without the instinctive imperative that keeps every one of those ants in line and on-message? If Freud’s work can still be taken to signify anything other than an over-ambitious modern mythopoeia, then what might we derive from it? That the ego, which asserts supremacy in order to beguile itself on through the tunnel of its survival, is in truth just as often subject to the forces it strives to command as master of the same. That the forces swarming in the unconscious are not tameable by diktats issuing from the ego; that the ego might be the seat of rational and conscious consideration, but that other entangled forces in the psyche can still conduct a civil war which renders the kingdom of that psyche at best a divided one, and at worst a scene of perennial devastation.
The notion that the I, whether big or little, did not utter itself as a tranquil psychic unity would have come as no surprise to William Blake. I, he knew only too well, was one mode of expression for a congeries of disputing and even warring energies and forces, sometimes of transcendent, even demonic, power. As those forces reconfigure (or reconsider) themselves, the nature of the I inevitably changes too. He put the matter punningly in ‘The Mental Traveller’: ‘For the Eye altering alters all.’ What we see is how we see; and how we see is who we are. In ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in the Pickering Manuscript, Blake makes the crucial distinction between seeing with the eyes and seeing through them. Those who see with the eyes merely see through conventions; they see what is translated through a species of collective egotism, a vast collective lens of received opinion. To see through the eyes, though, is not merely to confront the seeable with the dictates of your little i, but instead to permit the seeable to make its presence felt to the watcher. It is to allow oneself to be penetrated. It is, in Blake’s usage from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to attend as the doors of perception are cleansed. You cannot interpret meaningfully if you start from the proposition and the pre-position that you already know. Blake’s home off the Strand was called by intimates like Palmer the House of the Interpreter. Here was one whose host of little i’s had been transcended. Here was one whose thoughts were not traded as counters in the marketplace of opinion.
‘All truth is a species of revelation.’ In other words, it is not an opinionated imposition upon the scheme of things, but a detection of the nature of things effected by intelligent and scrupulous attentiveness. Now this was also Ludwig Wittgenstein’s understanding at the time that he was writing the Tractatus: insofar as language could convey truth at all, then it embodied something of the nature of the relations between things. If I say, the moon orbits the earth, then my statement, by a parallelism of form, by means of formal sympathy, must convey a reality to be perceived in nature. Truth is a species of revelation. It requires intelligent appreciation of the subject to be explored, together with skill in rendering the perceptions into form. In terms of language, this is what we normally call the ability to write. That ability, in its greatest scope, Coleridge would have added, is not mechanical but imaginative; not so much mimetic as esemplastic.
In coining the term esemplastic Coleridge was trying to fathom something about the working of the human mind: how, confronted with the many, it invariably sets about searching out the one from which the many must originally spring. There is a hyponymic urge in us which makes thought possible: seeing a vast variety of green growths, we say grass; seeing a vast variety of atmospheric conditions, we say weather; seeing a vast number of creatures with certain similarities, we say species. The urge can enlightens us, but it can mislead us too. We held for thousands of years that the Pentateuch was written by one man, Moses, and that the Psalms were written by one man, David. We put together a variety of heterogeneous texts and called it the Bible. Some insist that that vast heterogeneity of texts had only the one author too, as well as the singular title. Faced with the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos we insist it all originated at a single point, indeed a singularity: the Big Bang. And everything, on our present calculations, is ultimately made of protons, neutrons and electrons, unless dark matter reveals some material as yet entirely unexpected.
This is not, Coleridge would point out, the urge for simplification (though it can be that); it is the urge for clarification and comprehensibility. If reality were to present itself as no more than an infinite array of forces and forms, then we would be condemned to live in an unceasing perceptual flux. Intellection requires hierarchic subjugation, taxonomy, hyponymy. We search for the structure of things, even if that should contradict our previous ontologies. When we found in the 1890s that the atom had a structure, we contradicted the ontology built into our own treasured etymology. A-tomos meant indivisible; but that which has a structure is divisible. Our own words had been deceiving us.
But our own words might also put us right; so Freud believed anyway. Parapraxes are a correction of the conscious part of us by the less conscious. Parapraxes in their verbal form permit genuine desire to invade the channels of censorship and propriety. A Buck’s Fizz proffered by the man in the suit, who is growing squiffy, becomes a Fuck’s Bizz, because that’s his real preoccupation, which inhibition precludes him from saying consciously, but the repressed returns and mangles his locution, aided by an alcoholic lubricant. And so Freud comes to believe that all emotion, all desire, and the repression of the same, can be compressed into a single triangulation: between id, ego and superego. These are the quarks and electrons of our psychic life. These are the rudiments out of which everything else is constructed. Parapraxes alter the I (and thereby the eye) by forcing it to own up to conflicts within itself which it would sooner hide. Properly understood they might even force us to see through the eye rather than with it. That is, if you believe that the practice of free association, when processed through the analytic procedures of a Freudian practitioner, can connect up the disparate contingencies into an overall causality.
The I of Poiesis
THE POETIC I occupies a special space. What Roman Jakobson calls the poetic function permits the written word within the written space to float relatively free of referentiality; to foreground the gestures of its own linguistic play, its fictionality. Here is an I that can own up to containing any number of little i’s, without necessarily diminishing its stature. ‘I contain multitudes’, Whitman informs us (each presumably with its own i), and if that appears to threaten the protocols of coherence, then so be it: ‘You say that I contradict myself. Very well. I contradict myself.’ The logical distance between I and myself means that I can at least split my identity into the nominative and the accusative. I can treat myself simultaneously as subject and object. In this act of knowing myself knowing, of apperception, I am owning up to the fact that the I is not self-enclosed and homogeneous. Like the atom, it turns out to have a structure after all, and is therefore divisible.
At least as heroic as Whitman’s poetic I was Mayakovsky’s. The Russian poet insisted that his own ego had dissolved into the great historic force of the revolutionary masses. In ‘150 Million’ he writes: ‘150, 000, 000 speak through my lips.’ And then we had the recurrent I of Robert Lowell’s poetry, in and out of madness, in and out of jail, in and out of the hospital, and yet this I can never be dissevered from those other nominal agents of New England, the patrician Lowells. This is an I of enhanced genealogy, however desperate its battles with the Republic, even when it disintegrates before us.
In Molly’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, there are only eight sentences, and hardly any punctuation. Majuscules are retained only for names and her own personal pronoun, the I. Molly, even as she dozes off, still holds on to the big I against the little one. She is still insisting that she remain in command of her narrative, her little boat. If she cannot be captain, precisely, then she will at least sail on as Pirate Jenny. By the time we reach Finnegans Wake the I is no longer singular; it has become a multitude, and the language is shaping any I as much as that I can ever shape the language. This was to be Lacan’s message later, and that thinker was greatly preoccupied with Finnegans Wake, a book which contains the remark: ‘I have something inside of me talking to myself.’ There are at least three translatable I’s in that sentence.
But both Joyce and Lacan had been anticipated by Rimbaud. Rimbaud understood that he was fashioned by the language, and that the force of that fashioning was strong enough to sever signifier from signified, while still keeping a poetic structure intact. This is precisely what happens in ‘Le Bateau Ivre’, where the poem’s stanzaic and prosodic structure is the only principle of order that survives, along with grammar. Jakobson often talks in his work of how poetry, in its rhythmic and aural structurings, its formalities and repetitions, can provide a principle of textual coherence which in other types of writing would have to be provided by narrative or discursive unities. Rimbaud understands this, and he also understands the principle of the formulation: Je est un autre. The key word here is est; had it been suis, as it was in Gérard de Nerval’s ‘Je suis l’autre’, then the rupture could be mild, indeed negotiable. But if the first person can be transposed into the third with only a single empty space between them, then, as Othello put it, chaos is come again.
In his early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx spoke freely of alienation. We, as a species, have become alienated from ourselves. The division of labour and the control of the means of production by those owners who receive the benefits of the surplus value created by industrial production, mean that the maintenance of our means of subsistence actually thwarts our appetite for meaning, turns us into agents of our own semantic dislocation. The whole of the alienated system expresses itself in the ultimate runic device of capitalism: the commodity.
And when Freud began his practice he was known as an alienist; one who could enter the alienated realm of the mentally disturbed and translate the mangled language to be heard therein into the coherence of scientific explanation. Freud was explicit: he sought to translate id into ego, so that we might journey from the inchoate and irrational to the realm of the rational and self-comprehending. Rimbaud’s programme was the precise opposite. He would seek the ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’. Not merely the derangement of the senses, but their deregulation. One might translate his wish thus, as a precise inversion of Freud’s programme: to translate ego into id. Between these two I’s, poetry still ventures. In the Adagia Wallace Stevens reflects that in poetry one wants the imagination to outrun the intellect, if only just. And imagination and intellect remain two aspects of the one I, Siamese twins who have grown old enough to argue. Or as we remember the multivocal and translingual text of Finnegans Wake putting it: ‘I have something inside of me talking to myself.’
The ionic column of the I sometimes puts headphones on, in the form of inverted commas, and becomes ‘I’, in an effort to block out the sound of the collapsing building, of which it was once an ornament.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has now been issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, and now a second collection, this time of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, is now available. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.