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Phenomenality and dissatisfaction in Coleridge's Notebooks.

THE LAST THING COLERIDGE WANTED TO BE CALLED WAS AN EMPIRICIST, yet he devoted hours of his life to minute descriptions of optical illusions, hallucinations, and sensory oddities--"spectra," as he calls them. He records occurrences as ordinary as after-images of colors, (1) double vision (N 1863, 2632), double take (N 2212), and reflections taken as objects (N 1844, 2557, 3159), and as dramatic as flowers on the curtain that turn into faces (N 2082); "a spectrum, of a Pheasant's Tail, that altered thro' various degredations into round wrinkly shapes" (N 1681); a "spectrum" of his own thigh that registered touches as luminous white trails (N 1108); and the apparition of an acquaintance whom he knows not to be in the room. On the occasion of this last hallucination Coleridge recalls, "I once told a Lady, the reason why I did not believe in the existence of Ghosts &c was that I had seen too many of them myself" (N 2583).

The meticulousness of his notebook entries indicates that Coleridge thought of them as a kind of research. (2) It is because Coleridge isn't an empiricist that he is interested in evidently illusory appearances, gathering evidence against phenomenality by noting every time it misleads. He is concerned that phenomenality be recognized as merely phenomenal. "Often and often I have had similar Experiences," he explains, "and therefore resolved to write down the Particulars whenever [begin strikethrough]they[end strikethrough] any new instance should occur/as a weapon against Superstition" (N 2583). Still, Coleridge often sounds as though he doesn't quite know why he finds spectra so fascinating--for he is not only intrigued, but moved. He could fear and love for their own sake images that he knew to be unreal; complementarily, he could not always summon fear and love for things that he thought real, pressing, fearsome, and lovable. His exclamation about the stars and moon in "Dejection: An Ode"--"I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!"(3)--is exemplary of the state of mind in question, one long contemplated in the secondary literature and considered utterly characteristic of Coleridge.

Coleridge's generally pleasurable absorption in spectra stands in contrast to his terror of certain other, equally ephemeral experiences: obsessive thoughts and ideas, memories, and dreams as opposed to daydreams. Although they may seem similar--and what's worse, one may turn into the other--there is a strong distinction for Coleridge between spectra and these mental phenomena, which he calls "spectres." While spectra are collaborations with the sensorium, spectres usually seem to take place inside the self, lack visual distance, and are involuntary: they are unwelcome, intractable impositions. (4) If Coleridge is sometimes puzzled by his attraction to spectra, he is even more puzzled and frustrated by his fear of spectres he doesn't believe in. "Most men affected by belief of reality attached to the wild-weed spectres of infantine nervousness," he notes in a jotting of 1806, "but I affected by them simply, & of themselves" (N 2944).

Coleridge's concerns--his investment in phenomena in whose reality he doesn't believe and his perplexity about what he should feel toward them--are not his alone. Qualities of derealization and hyperlucidity have been treated as signatures of the aesthetic and of ideology. Recent analyses of ideology observe that ideology can captivate while leaving reality testing untouched: the magic of commodity fetishes and the senseless resilience of cultural prejudices affect many people simply and of themselves. (5) Various philosophical traditions struggle, as Coleridge does, to articulate relations to merely apparitional appearances. In the history of these struggles, I want to suggest, attitudes toward phenomenality recurrently depend on attitudes toward diffuse, low-level dissatisfaction. In classical skepticism, dissatisfaction is what we're supposed to feel toward mere phenomena: the principle of akatalepsia, the idea that appearance tells nothing about nonappearance, is often treated as though it meant that appearance told nothing worth knowing. But too much dissatisfaction with phenomenality is also treated with suspicion, this time by realists, on the reasoning that even skeptics' mistrust of appearance overvalues its insignificance. People who seem to be expecting something from phenomena can expect to he accused of expecting too much.

Too much what? Attraction to phenomenality for its own sake may be interpreted, and resented, as a desire to escape from human society. Skepticism toward phenomena is resented on complementary grounds, as a negative interest that indicates the questioner's inordinate craving for more than relation can give. Behind discomfort regarding phenomenality lies the assumption that dissatisfaction with natural conditions--or with social relations broad enough to suggest dissatisfaction with the natural--should not he uttered or perhaps even felt. The conflict over phenomenality is a second-order social conflict about what conflicts it is sociable to have.

Coleridge ponders the social dimensions of attitudes toward phenomenality, as we can see in his remark about "wild-weed spectres." In what turns out to be a persistent association, Coleridge attributes his attraction to spectra and his fear of spectres to something like but worse than the credulity of children. It's childlike to attach "belief of reality" to ghosts; it's worse than childlike--it's incomprehensible--not to believe in ghosts and still be affected by them. Caring about images he doesn't believe in divides him from "most men," Coleridge notes with both pride and exasperation. Although caring beyond belief shows off his autonomy, demonstrating that autonomy, ironically, diminishes Coleridge's influence over other people. The situation can also be read the other way around to imply that Coleridge cares about spectra because he feels alienated from most men in the first place. The circularity of explanations means more than either explanation alone, for it shows the mutually constitutive relation of interpersonal and perceptual experiences. While we accept in theory and yet often ignore the idea that every least perception is itself a social interaction, for Coleridge the identity between social and perceptual relations is noticeable 24/7. One thing that interests Coleridge in spectra, though, is that they reflect sociality negatively, in the value of their apparent freedom. By exercising his imagination through spectra, Coleridge aestheticizes perception; but although spectra are aesthetically escapist, they also index the limitations of social relations and reflect the desire to improve upon them.

Of course, Coleridge thoroughly explored interpersonal interaction as a poetic practice and a poetic idea, especially in his thought about collaboration. His interest in spectra is highest when his partnership with Wordsworth is also at its height, and functions in part as a shadow commentary on their rivalry. This commentary appears in Coleridge's poetry but more often in his Notebooks, as though his reflections on spectra were even in their private form alternatives to conversation. The challenge of the Notebooks is that spectra are more rewarding than the personal exchanges they reflect. This conclusion reaches further than the peculiar misfortunes of Coleridge's interpersonal life. Coleridge's thought about spectra suggests that philosophical dissatisfaction with appearance tout court displaces the crucial possibility that attitudes toward appearance are a mode of expressing and repressing dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is built into the concept of appearance, if we assume that appearance must be completed by a substantive correlative. But what if we made these assumptions, invented appearance as a figure of incompleteness, in order to transfer dissatisfaction to appearance to absorb it there? Dissatisfaction with nontragic conditions perceived as natural is considered wayward; we express it, therefore, in our attitudes toward our most explicitly contingent experiences: floridly phenomenal experiences like derealization and fleeting optical perceptions. (6) Lingering among the spectra, Coleridge expresses something we do not feel entitled to express because it is so comprehensive and banal: human experience leaves a lot to be desired, and we can neither be reconciled to it nor simply accept our lack of reconciliation.

Like many people who experience dissociation, Coleridge thought himself isolated and misunderstood. He ascribed this state of affairs to his phenomenological and epistemological deviance. The inverse ratio between Coleridge's consciousness of his influence over perceptions and his ability to communicate with people is partly a matter of philosophical taste, as he notes. Thus Coleridge complains of "the pain I suffer & have suffered, in differing so from such men, such true men of England, as [...], & their affectionate love of Locke" (N 1418; see also N 3566, N 4605). The dominant attitude of empiricism, he believes, is only nominally liberal, intolerant of alternative perspectives. In this context, Coleridge's plagiarisms of idealists express his hunger to be in agreement with someone at last. (7)

Coleridge does not view his estrangement from his peers as merely ideological, though, but as a necessary consequence of the sort of creature he must be to hold his beliefs:
 And yet I think, I must have some analogon of Genius, because, among
 many other things, when I am in company with Mr Sharp, Sir
 J. Mackintosh, R. and Sydney Smith, Mr Scarlet, &c &c, I feel like a
 Child--nay, rather like an Inhabitant of another Planet--their very
 faces act upon me, sometimes as if they were Ghosts, but more often
 as if I were a Ghost, among them--at all times, as if we were not
 consubstantial. (N 3324)


Coleridge conflates his sense of depersonalization with his derealized perceptions, and both again with childhood as an ontological state. Feeling like a child means living with the possibility of being engulfed by another: if I think you overwhelm my autonomy, I may of course feel depersonalized, ghostly, and different from you. When "a thing acts on me ... as purely passive," Coleridge notes, "I am thinged" (N 3587). The power struggle has its delectations and plots of reversal, which Coleridge describes in the language of the sublime: "Ghost of a mountain--the forms seizing my Body as I passed & became realities--I, a Ghost, till I had reconquered my Substance" (N 524). A child feels like, and really is, the plaything of a stronger being. Calling a child's alienation an "analogon of Genius" only figures the inequality between child and adult in a positive way, turning ghostliness into refinement. But how does an adult sitting in a room with his peers come to feel "act[ed] upon" by "their very faces"?

In a discussion of Swedenborg's visions, Coleridge opines that effects of ghostliness are caused by insufficient consciousness of one's own actions. Swedenborg's fantasies perhaps "arose out of a voluntary power of so bedimming or interrupting the impressions of the outward senses as to produce the same transition of thoughts into things, as ordinarily takes place on passing into Sleep." Because the "successive Images and Sounds" produced in this way are still "distinguishable from actual impressions ab extra chiefly by the uniform significancy of the former," however, and because the visionary does not credit himself with the voluntary action that would account for the high organization of imagery, he ascribes his visions to "a Will or multitude of wills alien from the Will of the Beholder" (N 3474). At a loss for other explanations, he posits supernatural presences. (8) By this logic, superstition is a consequence of starting out from empiricism. If we didn't believe in the first place that we were passive receptors of perceptions, we would never make the mistake of looking outside ourselves to account for them.

This analysis would imply that Coleridge experiences himself and his parlor companions in an attenuated way because he "bedim[s]" his sensory impressions at the outset. Again, two complementary explanations, one social and one perceptual, together make one circular one. We feel attenuated, first, when other people are active and we're passive, as in certain cases involving adults and children; and, second, when we voluntarily filter our sensory perceptions. One hypothesis as to why, in turn, we do that, is that it offers self-anaesthesia in anticipation of social paint. (9) We would rather see and be ghosts than people because however frightening ghosts are, they're safer. The sequence child--alien--ghost moves through stages of a retreat: "I feel like a Child"; I'd "rather" feel different but equal, "like an Inhabitant of another Planet"; I'd really rather feel "as if I were a Ghost" who, already dead, couldn't be harmed and could frighten others. When Coleridge complains that he is ostracized for his philosophy, he takes the view that his attitude toward the phenomenal is aberrant, and that his isolation follows from that. In the complementary theory, his motives run the opposite way: Coleridge is alienated from other people, so he profits from muting his impressions of them. Circularly, interpersonal and perceptual systems present themselves as two sides of a single surface.

In order for the single surface model to hold, spectra would have to be more than symptoms of contingent neuroses. They certainly are more to Coleridge, who casts his experiences with spectra as rediscoveries of a very primary-sounding capacity to adjust one's forms of contact with the world. Although Coleridge reinforces this point every time he praises the "esemplastic" imagination, it's easy to underestimate his affection for the tiny perceptual modulations that indicate the awakening of imagination. Imagining is as easy as squinting. Bringing a book close to his eye (N 1681), putting on green spectacles and removing them ("O what a lovely Purple when you pull them off" [N 1974]), are fundamental aesthetic acts whose uses are familiar to visual artists. Man Ray liked to watch films "through his fingers, spread to isolate certain parts of the image" (10); "Sir G. Beaumont found great advantage in learning to draw from nature thro' Gause Spectacles," Coleridge notes (N 1973). We can create a similar effect any time: "just half wink your Eyes and look at the Land, it is then all under water, or with that glossy Unreality which a Prospect has, when seen thro' smoke" (N 1844).

In his poems and notebooks Coleridge depicts the poesis of perception as effortless, on the model of the wink. In "To William Wordsworth," Coleridge portrays himself in infantine thrall to absorptive pleasure at Wordsworth's reading of The Prelude (PW 408). In a scene narrated in a notebook of 1801, Wordsworth again plays the adult to Coleridge's child, but Coleridge subsumes Wordsworth's influence into a world of his own vivifaction. At the beginning of the scene, Coleridge lies "abed" in the afternoon:
 Wednesday--Afternoon. Abed--nervous--had noticed the prismatic
 colours [begin strike through]reflected[end strike through]
 transmitted from the Tumbler--Wordsworth came--I talked with him--he
 left me alone I shut my eyes--beauteous spectra of two colors,
 orange and violet--then of green, which immediately changed to
 Peagreen, & then actually grew to my eye into a beautiful moss, the
 same as is on the mantle-piece at Grasmere.--abstract Ideas--&
 unconscious Links!! (N 925)


From the spectrum of prismatic colors arise "beauteous spectra" of more. Not only do colors give way to aftercolors--one of the literal meanings of the word "spectra"--but words generate images and vice versa. The terms of Coleridge's description suggest that this is the way things were longer ago than he can remember. While he is immobilized in the middle of the day in an infantine fashion (as in "This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison"), Wordsworth looks in on him. After the conversation has stirred Coleridge's associations, he forms a kind of proto-poem of resonances. Green spectra take on vegetal characteristics that typify the "streaminess" of association (thus Coleridge sees "wild-weed spectres" of illusion and "grasslike Streaks" on his muslin curtains). (11) The vegetation association brings up a "pea" shade of green, then the animation of associations allegorizes itself in the transformation of green color into "moss" as at "Gras[s]mere." (12) Coleridge sketches his own model for the growth of the poet's mind: the infant on his back mingling thoughts and colors in free association before autonomy or even vision has fully developed. (13) This radiant virtual environment responds to the mind's wishes, yet retains many of the values of nature.

Predicated on ambiguities of scale, placement, and cause, spectra occupy a fluid middle ground where Coleridge has the opportunity to reimagine relations. His imaginations imply particular psychological motives, as when Coleridge proves himself against the mountain. "Why do I seek for mountains," Coleridge asks,
 when in the flattest countries the Clouds present so many so much
 more romantic and spacious forms, & the coal-fire so many so much
 [sic] more varied and lovely forms?--And whence arises the pleasure
 from musing on the latter/do I not more or less consciously fancy
 myself a Lilliputian, to whom these would be mountains--& so by
 this factitious scale make them mountains, my pleasure being
 consequently playful, a voluntary poem in hieroglyphics or
 picture-writing--"phantoms of Sublimity" which I continue to know to
 be phantoms? (N 2402)


A similar constellation of fire, childhood, and animism appears in the canonical lyric "Frost at Midnight." In the poem, Coleridge's narrator "makes a toy of Thought" by animating the film that flutters on his fire grate (PW 240-42). The notebook entry helps to frame the type of situation depicted in the poem: Coleridge looks for mountains in coal fires, mobilizing uncertainty of scale to "fancy [him]self a Lilliputian." He makes a toy of thought to imagine or remember himself at a size susceptible of being toyed with. At the same time, to the extent that the coal fire shapes stand in for memories or idealizations of bigger entities, comparing these entities to the fire shapes diminishes them. Coleridge is a Gulliver fancying himself a Lilliputian fancying himself a Gulliver--and so on. Despite their psychological uses, though, the beauty of spectra is that they do not confine Coleridge to reordering the specific ideas that trouble him. Spectra may seem to be fancies, but in their repleteness they are opposed to mechanical recombination. Their co-extensiveness with perception makes them as holistic as nature. Lingering over a purple after-image, Coleridge does not thematize the struggle between child and adult or any other preoccupation, but brings about a wholesale shift in his way of engaging the world. (14) Of course, the aesthetic freedom of spectra is fed by social dilemmas; their freedom is valuable in proportion to the relations they momentarily leave behind. "Like the Gossamer Spider, we may float upon air and seem to fly in mid heaven," Coleridge remarks, "but we have spun the slender Thread out of our own fancies, & it is always fastened to something below" (N 2166).

When Coleridge comes upon spectra he is eager to log, he plays with them and extends them. He savors them, confirming his participation in their appearance, and often notes how long a spectrum lasts. A dose of "Castor Oil in Gin & Water" helps to bring on a double image of Coleridge's seal "exactly as if seen thro' a common Reading-glass"; notable in this event, Coleridge writes, is that "I saw and (after noticing the circumstance) still continued to see it, like a fixed reality not dependent on my will, without dimness or swimmingness of Vision" (N 2632). In another incident he experiments with the lines of sight that support "a phantom of [his] face upon the night cap which lay just on [his] pillow." It "came only as my head was bent low," he observes; "I moved the Night Cap and lost it/the night cap & the associations" (N 1750). (15) Still another time, a chasm opens between Coleridge's bed and chest of drawers and the wallpaper pattern grows larger and more vivid:
 As I gazed at this, I again voluntarily threw myself into
 introversive Reflections, & again produced the same Enlargement of
 Shapes & Distances and the same increase of vividness--but all
 seemed to be seen thro' a very thin glaceous mist--thro' an
 interposed Mass of Jelly of the most exquisite subtlety &
 transparency. But my reason for noting this is--the fact, in my
 second & voluntary production of this Vision I retained it as long
 as I like, nay, bent over with my body & looked down into the wide
 Interspace between the Bed & Chest of Drawers, & the papered Wall,
 without destroying the Delusion/then started my eyes & something
 [...] of the Brain behind the eyes started or jirked them forward,
 and all was again as in common./ The power of acting on a delusion,
 according to the Delusion, without dissolving it/--carry this on
 into a specific Disease of this Kind-Prophets, &c--(N 3280)


Coleridge's cultivation of spatial distortion and hyperintensity through "voluntary production" and as long as he likes--at least, as long as he likes till it suddenly ends--is both a fetishistic pleasure and a "Disease" that predisposes him to prophecy. (16) Sustaining a vision as long as he likes until it stops may seem like a contradiction, but it makes sense that Coleridge appreciates both dependence and independence in visions. Fastened by threads, spectra better display the mind's resources the more they can seem to have lives of their own--"outness"--and still be spectra. They can and should come vanishingly close to other perceptions.

Logically, spectra also need to remain distinct from impressions in order to retain their value as alternatives to impressions. Of course, if a spectrum ever were identical with an impression, Coleridge would never know it. Interestingly, he doesn't worry about it; he never asks whether an impression is actually a spectrum. In the meditation on Swedenborg mentioned above, Coleridge notes that spectra are "distinguishable from actual impressions ab extra chiefly by the uniform significancy of the former, and by the absence of that apparent contingency and promiscuous position of Objects by which Nature or the World of the bodily sense is discriminated" (N 3474). Even if one accepts that spectra possess this distinction, by Coleridge's own logic they achieve their maximum impact when the line of discrimination is "infra-thin." (17) Fetishizing the fragility of spectral self-consciousness itself, Coleridge praises the "interposed ... Jelly" of his self-created atmosphere for "its most exquisite subtlety and transparency." Still, when Coleridge transcribes spectra "as a weapon against Superstition," he has in mind some harm that would ensue if spectra were ontologized. "What if instead of immediately checking the sight and then pleased with it as a philosophical Case, I had been frightened, and encouraged it--& my Understanding had joined its Vote to that of my Senses?" (N 2583).

What if? "Frost at Midnight" suggests one answer. The poem asks which is more vulnerable, the speculative mock-animism of the spectrum collector or the "most believing" outlook of childhood. By the "mirror seeking" reasoning he attributes to himself, the "strange / And extreme silentness" the poet observes in the first stanza may be an artifact of manipulating perceptions from a distance. But the second stanza identifies the exposure in response to which this reserve forms, when as a child, the poet really believes the folklore that fire films "are ... supposed to portend the arrival of some absent friend" (PW 240, n. 2):
 How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
 Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
 To watch that fluttering stranger! ...

 So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
 Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
 And so I brooded all the following morn,
 Awed by the stem preceptor's face, mine eye
 Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
 Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
 A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
 For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
 Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
 My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!


(PW 241-42)

When we ask what would happen if Coleridge's "Understanding ... joined its Vote to that of [his] Senses"--what would be wrong with this, finally?--the poem's answer is that it would return him to the state of childhood, when he was at the mercy of hopes that were not going to be fulfilled. Making a toy of thought at least spares him from taking thoughts for prophecies (we would speak of wishes). The fleeting perception interpreted as a prophetic indication in "Frost at Midnight" parallels the hypothetical spectrum in the Notebooks, for which the understanding might "Vote." The parallel explains how Coleridge can worry about the reification of spectra when he does not generally worry about mistaking them for impressions. Although spectra are "distinguishable from actual impressions ab extra," they can be taken for actual in another sense, by being loaded with symbolic freight and internalized. At that point they cease to be spectra and become the mental entities from which spectra offer necessary relief.
 Those that come fresh from Visions:
 What saw you there?--That which I still see, that
 Which will not away. (18)


If children are literalists and adult fans of Locke forget or deny spectra, Coleridge wants to position himself in the middle, participating in spectra without being buffeted by them. As partnerships with perception, experiences that Coleridge has with his eyes open, spectra offer images of the mind's consent to its perceptions. Oddly, however, Coleridge implies that one can consent to and even modify sense data, but do nothing about ideas one generates by oneself. The spectral environment assumes a classic interfusion between inside and outside--and of course assumes insides and outsides themselves. The process of creating this environment, though, winds up suggesting that Coleridge can mitigate only perceptions of the external world. The mental capacity demonstrated by the phenomenon of spectra is powerless to assist him with the internal world that this line of thought also posits. This world belongs to nightmares and obsessional images, Coleridge's "spectres of infantine nervousness."

Coleridge's question regarding spectres--why can't he resist being moved by images he doesn't believe in?--resembles Freud's question about how dreams created to fulfill wishes can be unpleasant or frightening. Coleridge addresses the question with regard to dreams by rooting dream fear in physiology and thus splitting affect from cognitive content. In nightmares, he explains, we suffer "stupor of the outward organs of Sense ... occasioned by some painful sensation, of unknown locality, most often, I believe, in the lower Gut, tho' not seldom in the stomach, which withdraw[s] the attention to itself from its sense of other realities present" (N 4046). "The Understanding & Moral Sense" cannot control the "terror" of the nightmare "because it is not true Terror: i.e. apprehension of Danger, but a sensation as much as the Tooth-ache, a Cramp--I.e. the Terror does not arise out of [begin strikethrough]the[end strikethrough] a painful Sensation, but is itself a specific sensation." As critics have noted, this "gastric" hypothesis does not make for a gratifying dream theory--it short-circuits questions about repression and self-destructiveness by making dream life a kind of mistake. (19) But Coleridge's dream theory is an artifact of his much better developed philosophy of perception, the area in which he does wrestle with paradoxes of repression and phenomena beyond the pleasure principle. For Coleridge, dream terror has to be like pain because it s possible to ameliorate only the perceptual environment, and in dreams there is a very impoverished environment, a "stupor of the outward organs of Sense." Collaborating with the sensory world on spectra, the mind works on the facade of the outside, the outside of the outside. In dreams, the outside is inside, in oneself. And because derealization is something you can do only to a perception, you can't derealize an internal image. The same is true for intensification and modification: the commands "derealize" and "modify" don't work on dreams. Dreams are defined by their possession of an autonomous inalterable quality, so that self-conscious dreaming is not really dreaming: "We are nigh to waking when we dream, we dream" (N 4410).

One of Coleridge's nightmares of 1811, for example, resists analgesia by virtue of its ideality:
 Last night before awaking or rather delivery from the nightmair, in
 which a claw-like talon-nailed Hand grasped hold of me, (20)
 interposed between the curtains, I ha[begin strike through]ve[end
 strike through]d just before with my foot felt some thing seeming to
 move against it (--for in my foot it commenced)--I detected it, I
 say, by my excessive Terror, and dreadful Trembling of my whole
 body, Trunk & Limbs--& by my piercing out-cries--Good Heaven!
 (reasoned I) were this real, I never should or could be, in such an
 agony of Terror--(N 4046)


The situation that never occurs with a spectrum occurs here with a spectre: Coleridge takes the dream for real, and realizes late that it can't be. He asserts not only that he can be affected by spectres, but that he is optimally affected by them, able to infer "by [his] excessive Terror" that the experience is internal. Hartley Coleridge agrees that distressing images of "Men & faces" "seem when my eyes are [begin strike through]shut[end strike through] open, & worse when they are shut" (N 1253). Hartley calls these markedly anthropomorphic images "the Seems." When his eyes are open Hartley takes action against the Seems by ordering a candle, that is, by intervening in his perceptual environment; but when his eyes are shut, there is no candle. Because nightmares occur in nearly total seclusion from the perceptual world, there is little in them to attenuate. To Coleridge, the idea of an image immune to modification is perfectly petrifying. Internal scary images are scariest of all because the imagination cannot reach them where they are, deep within itself. Coleridge writes that such images seem to be "behind" him, and records the black comedy of his attempts to get at them:
 Saturday Night, at Mr. Butler's at Ridding--the Nightmair--so near
 awaking and my saying--Yes! Dreams, or creatures of my Dreams,
 you may make me feel you as if you were keeping behind me/but you
 cannot speak to me--immediately I heard impressed on my outward
 ears, & with a perfect sense of distance answered--O yes! but I
 can--


Sunday, Oct. 21--1810. (N 3984)

These contortions put an ironic spin on Coleridge's testy criticism of empiricists. Empiricists, he argues, think themselves the passive receptors of givens, in effect believing in ghosts without knowing it. "I am no Ghostseer--I am no believer in Apparitions," he declares in one late rant. "During the years of ill health from disturbed digestion I saw a host of apparitions, & heard them too--but I attributed them to an act in my brain/You according to your own [sic] see and hear nothing but apparitions in your brain, and strangely attribute them to things that are out [begin strikethrough]of[end strikethrough] side of your skull/which of the two notions is most like the philosopher, which th[begin strike through]at[end strike through]e [begin strike through]of[end strike through] superstitionist" (N 4605). Yet the idea left in the skull after imagination is exhausted is as autonomous, for better and worse, as a thing in itself. Against Coleridge's well-known misgivings about streamy thought, then, we need to place his horror of immobile thought and hunger for lyric freedom, for "the molten Being never cooled into a Thing," as he writes of the sea at Malta (N 3159).

This can be hard to see because in his criticism, especially, Coleridge does systematize the reification of subjectivity of which idealism is often accused. (21) He observes that "Thought is the past participle of Thing," and implies the reverse as well: "thinking, i.e., thinging or thing out of me = a thing in me" (N 3587). In Chapter 12 of Biographia Literaria, he divides apperceptive consciousness from common sense only to assert that it consists of a form even more immediate. He begins the chapter by declaring that "there is a philosophic (and inasmuch as it is actualized by an effort of freedom, an artificial) consciousness, which lies beneath or (as it were) behind the spontaneous consciousness natural to all reflecting beings" (BL 1.236). He figures "the domain of PURE philosophy, which is therefore properly entitled transcendental" (BL 1.237), as an invisible territory on the other side of a mountain range. Aspiring philosophers conceive this territory through "thoughts" and "strong probabilities" (BL 1.239). No sooner has be parted ways with those who rest content with given data, however, than he recasts consciousness as a unity of intellect and intuition in immediate form: "on the IMMEDIATE, which dwells in every man, and on the original intuition, or absolute affirmation of it, (which is likewise in every man, but does not in every man rise into consciousness) all the certainty of our knowledge depends" (BL 1.243). Separating "thoughts" and "probabilities" from "the ascertaining vision, the intuitive knowledge" of the truths toward which they reach, Coleridge asserts that the means of bringing the two together "can be learnt only by the fact" (BL 1.239-40). Making philosophic consciousness even more experiential, he states that intellectual intuition is available "not in every man," but only to some, in much the way that some people possess especially well-developed "organs of sense" (BL 1.242). The drift of the passage reasserts the logic of sense-certainty on the transcendental level, converting the inability to rest content with external sense into an internal sense. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge believes this is desirable, since it shows the ideality of truth. His experience, meanwhile, shows why it is not desirable: true idealities are viselike idees fixe.

For Coleridge, fixity and belief are mutually enabling qualities, as his discussion of nightmares suggests. Much of his horror focuses on their keenly tactile effects (as in his dream of a "talon-nailed Hand"). (22) Coleridge writes that "the very last [dream] which awoke [him]" on March 4, 1805,
 was a completed Night-Mair, as it gave [my italics--R.T.] the idea
 and sensation of actual grasp or touch contrary to my will, & in
 apparent consequence of the malignant will of the external Form,
 actually appearing or (as sometimes happens) believed to exist/in
 which latter case tho' I have two or three times felt a horrid touch
 of Hatred, a grasp, or a weight, of Hate and Horror abstracted from
 all (Conscious) form or supposal of Form/ an abstract touch/an
 abstract grasp--an abstract weight! (N 2468)


In this passage a nightmare is a nightmare not because of its content but because it gives Coleridge the sensation of being acted upon. That sensation, in turn, comes from ontic belief in an "external Form." The dream idea is reified, or "actual": an appearance that Coleridge oxymoronically calls "actual" appearance has the same tactile effect as an entity inferred and believed to exist. So when images are believed, they generate tactile effects, and when they possess those effects, they count as "actual" and/or believed in. Like the voice inside him that answers with "a perfect sense of distance," abstract touch makes the point that for Coleridge, spectres are the paradigmatic things.

Thus Coleridge often figures spectres as objects in or attached uncomfortably to the head. He also imagines heads, especially his own, detached or detachable, as though considering the surgical removal of his brain. He recalls that "Aristotle in his reasonings concerning vision adduces an instance of one Antipho, who always saw his own perfect image facing him [in] the air, wherever be was or whithersoever he moved" (N 2973). Coleridge laments "moral antiphos," and pictures himself as an Antipho or Narcissus--imaginings that complement his better-known poetic musings over Sara Hutchinson as "Phantom or Fact." He is at least twice taken with a "well with shadows" and reflections where his own features may appear (N 981, N 2557), and compares the insubstantial form of his hallucinated acquaintance (mentioned above) to "a Face in a clear Stream" (N 2583). (23) I've already mentioned, as well, the spectrum in which Coleridge's face appears on the nightcap lying on his pillow (N 1751). A cap can stand in for a head, as etymology suggests. Returning to Greta Hall after an absence, Coleridge is unnerved by the "astonishing Effect of a unbecoming Cap on Sara. It in the strictest sense of the word frightened me." The ensemble had the "distressing character of one of those Dreams ... in which all the features and stature, color, etc etc being altered, the person is still known and familiar" (N 3404). Coleridge reacts to Hutchinson's change of cap as though she had changed her head, imploring her "a great deal too much in the Presence of others" to take it off. Coleridge sides with Sara's contingent particularities over her ideality, even though he recognizes the ideality: definitionally immutable, the ideality is "distressing." Going over the incident in his notebook, he regrets his action as a tactical mistake, but never questions the significance of his perception. Since her face tends to visit him before he goes to sleep, he worries that her new head will replace the one he loves and he won't be able to do anything about it: "What if on my Death-bed her Face, which had hovered before me as my soothing and beckoning Seraph, should all at once flash into that new face, rendered of yet more affrightful expression by the action of the painful feelings produced by it, thence associated with it, thence returning with it in the same Trance of recollection, and of course modifying it?" (N 3404).

The strongest spectre is revealed to be memory, "returning ... in the trance of recollection." Coleridge gives it that name in an allegory of 1806:
 Memory, a wan misery-Eyed Female, still gazing with snatches of the
 eye at present forms to annihilate the one thought into which her
 Being had been absorbed--& every form recalled & refixed--In the
 effort it seemed to be fluttering off--the moment the present form
 had been seen, it returned--She fed on bitter fruits from the Tree
 of Life--& often she attempted to tear off from her forehead a seal,
 which Eternity had placed there; and instantly she found in her Hand
 a hideous phantom of her own visage, with that seal on its forehead;
 and as she stood horrorstruck beholding the phantom-head so wan &
 supernatural, which she seemed to hold before her eyes with right
 hand too numb to feel or be felt/itself belonging to the eye alone,
 & like a <distant>rock in a rain-mist, distinguishable by one shade
 only of substance/(i.e, the vision enriched by subconsciousness of
 palpability by influent recollections of Touch) (N 2915)


This fable explains how one becomes an Antipho. The protagonist is all Memory, to whom the phenomenal world offers temporary relief. "Gazing ... at present forms" is an "effort" that is more expressive than receptive, as though obsessional thoughts could escape through the eyes and be dissipated in nature. Her controlling "thought" is like a bird, butterfly, or film that has become inseparable from her head so that she might not survive its forcible removal, When she tries to tear the thought away, she reduplicates it in her hand. The thought that makes this figure all Memory is no longer even a thought of hers: rather, she is "absorbed" in it. What's truly definitive of oneself, Coleridge implies, can be expressed or detached: the thought fails to be her property because it cannot be rendered external.

We can learn how one comes to be possessed by a thought by recalling a thought with which Coleridge is perhaps obsessed: the primal scene of spectra, the idea of a possible sexual encounter between Wordsworth and Sara Hutchinson, represented by missing pages in Coleridge's notebooks. One evening Coleridge had come across Wordsworth and Hutchinson ambiguously "in bed." He fled in panic to a local pub where he drank the night away and wrote agitated pages in his notebook; afterward he ripped out the pages. The incident is perceptual, a spectrum and not wholesale fantasy. Reflecting years later on the lasting sway it has over him, Coleridge describes something like the conversion of a dangerous spectrum into a possessing memory:
 Strange Self-power in the Imagination, when painful sensations have
 made it their Interpreter, or returning Gladsomeness from
 convalescence, gastric and visceral, have made its willed and
 evanished Figures and landscape bud, blossom, & live in scarlet, and
 green, & snowy white, (like the Fire screen inscribed with the
 nitrate & muriate of Cobalt)--strange power to represent the events
 & circumstances even to the Anguish or the triumph of the
 quasi-credent Soul, while the necessary conditions, the only
 possible causes of such contingencies are known to be impossible or
 hopeless, yea, when the pure mind would recoil from the very
 <eve-lengthened> shadow of an an [sic] approaching hope, as from a
 crime--yet the effect shall have place & Substance & living energy,
 & [begin strike through]no[end strike through] on a blue Islet of
 Ether in a whole Sky of blackest Cloudage shine, like a firstling of
 creation.--That dreadful Saturday Morning, at [...], (24) did I
 believe it? Did I not even know, that it was not so, could not be
 so? Would it not have been the sin against the Holy Ghost, against
 my own spirit, that would have absolutely destroyed the good
 principle in my conscience, if I had dared to believe it
 conscientiously, & intellectually! Yes! Yes! I knew the horrid
 phantasm to be a mere phantasm: and yet what anguish, what gnawings
 of despair, what throbbings and lancinations of positive
 Jealousy!--even to this day the undying worm of distempered Sleep or
 morbid Daydreams--Again--[...] how utterly improbable dared I hope
 it! How impossible for me (most pure indeed are my heart & fancy
 from such a thought) even to think of it, much less desire it! and
 yet at the encouraging prospect of emancipation <from narcotics, of>
 health & activity of mind & body, at the heavenly hope of becoming,
 as much as is possible, worthy of the unutterably [...], it is felt
 within me like an ordinance of adamantine Destiny!.... Sweet
 Hartley! What did he say, speaking of some Tale & wild Fancy of his
 Brain?--"It is not yet, but it will be for it is--& it cannot stay
 always, in here" (pressing one hand on his forehead and the other on
 his occiput)--"and then it will be--because it is not nothing."
 (N 3547)


Coleridge explains what he thought he had seen as an image that affected him without his believing in its reality, but projects its eventual transformation from potential to rhetorical to actual substance. "Willed and evanished figures," like prepared sketches, stand ready to receive the elements he associates with streamy vivacity--green vigor, fire, and color. Coleridge's respect for mental force leads him to ask himself whether he wishes this animation. The recurring language of "approach" and "recoil" hints that he is right to ask. The passage begins in abstraction, then moves from retreat from desire for Hutchinson--an "approaching hope" that Coleridge treats as a crime (see note 8)--to hope that the events of "that dreadful Saturday" are implausible, then to what sounds like veiled hope for the events. It is as though Coleridge were implying that he has to hope the scene "utterly improbable" because he is incapable of imagining Hutchinson in bed with himself, let alone with Wordsworth; and that, by a reversible logic, there is some profit in finding Hutchinson in bed with Wordsworth since that brings her closer, in a way, to being in bed with himself. In the sentence "How impossible for me ... even to think of it, muck less desire it," the two unlikely scenarios seem to unite in one convenient "it." Observing that the effect of this spectrum of spectra "is felt within me like an ordinance of adamantine Destiny," Coleridge shifts his attention from the dubiousness of the appearance itself to its indubitable persistence in his head. In the words Coleridge recalls, Hartley does the same. Trying like Memory to clutch at the contents of his head, Hartley insists that his thoughts are "not nothing" and therefore do not belong solely within him. Hartley's logic seems to be that an idea that feels this much like a thing cannot be only internal. By Coleridge's reasoning, though, it is because Hartley's "wild fancy" is solely in his head that it feels this much like a thing.

From their place "behind" the self, memories soothe or menace, and the mind is as vulnerable against their overtures as it ever is to sense data in empiricist epistemology. These mental entities change, but not exactly because we change them; for reality, they can put perceptions in the shade. They "are often so dear & vivid, that present things are injured by being compared with them, vivid from dearness" (N 308). Frightening spectres are definitionally strong because of their involuntariness; by a Darwinian kind of logic, if the imagination were capable of altering them, it would have already.

Pressured by reifying impressions and his reified ideas, Coleridge gravitates toward the realm of spectra, where ideas and impressions mirror one another, divided by an infinitely fine line. The line itself would be the point of perfect "suspension of disbelief" that never tilts into belief. On the line, ideas and impressions are not something, but "not nothing," as Hartley carefully says. If Coleridge ever reached this place, he would neither know nor need to know which side of semblance he was on. Unlike philosophical views of skepticism that see it as derealizing or intensifying experience relative to something else--some other kind of imagined experience--this realm of mere appearance would be an anti-ontology outside of which no experience can be conceived. Much of the body of contemporary thought about spectrality posits the figure of the spectre as the figure of the unassimilable other and assumes, as well, the ethical necessity of one's relation to the other. Spectra, however, are the other of that; they express our rightful dissatisfaction with, our ethical right to our resistance to, the necessity of the unassimilable.

The very idea of the surface continuity of ideas and impressions is a mirror image of the surface discontinuity between people. But spectres are only figures of the inexorable, and spectra are only figures of freedom from the inexorable. In practice, phenomenal idylls are tinged with various degrees of irony toward the unidyllic social dynamics which they imply and to which they respond. On January 14, 1804, for example, Coleridge and Wordsworth enjoyed "Images of Calmness on Rydale Lake." As they often do for Coleridge, perceptual mistakes about objects and reflections connote intimacy:
 fresh Delves in the Slate Quarry I mistook for smoke in the
 reflection/An islet Stone, at the bottom of the Lake, the reflection
 so bright as to be heaved up out of the water/the Stone & its
 reflection looked so compleatly one, that Wordsworth remained for
 more than 5 minutes trying to explain why that Stone had no
 Reflection/& at last found it out by me. (N 1844)


The closeness between object and reflection reflects the incongruity between Coleridge and a rival perceiver--the difference suffered by the seer of spectra. Coleridge enjoys the spectrum itself, while Wordsworth experiences it as an impression. He also enjoys its privacy; he times this incident, too, at "more than 5 minutes," but this time the object of the experiment seems to be Wordsworth. Since little is at stake here, Coleridge is only mildly triumphant, confirmed in his difference.

But in a second entry Coleridge frankly sets the desirability of separation in principle and continuity in experience between "Thought and Reality" in the context of a pervasive nontragic dissatisfaction with himself, the world, and people. In the mode of the "Dejection" ode and with an allusion to "The Ancient Mariner," he blames himself for lacking the "Spirit of Life" that has to underwrite even a surface harmony:
 I work hard, I do the duties of common Life from morn to night/but
 verily--I raise my limbs, "like lifeless Tools"--The organs of
 motion & outward action perform their functions at the stimulus of a
 galvanic fluid applied by the Will, not by the Spirit of Life that
 makes Soul and Body one. Thought and Reality two distinct
 corresponding Sounds, of which no man can say positively which is
 the [begin strikethrough]Sound[end strikethrough] Voice and which
 the Echo. O the beautiful Fountain or natural Well at Upper
 Stowey--[.........] The images of the weeds which hung down from its
 sides, appeared as plants growing up, straight and upright, among
 the water weeds that really grew from the Bottom/& so vivid was the
 Image, that for some moments & not till after I had disturbed the
 water, did I perceive that [begin strikethrough]they[end
 strikethrough] their roots were not neighbours, & they side-by-side
 companions. So--even then I said--so are the happy man's Thoughts
 and Things--On the language of the modern Philosophers, ideas and
 Impressions.)--(N 2557)


The "or" structure of the choice between "beautiful Fountain or natural Well" creates alternatives while suggesting that there is no immediate need to choose between them. Coleridge does not claim, as he might have, that objects and reflections have a common root in a transcendental structure. They are separate, and the spectrum merely conceals their separation by projecting both on a single plane. Coleridge's dissatisfaction recalls the spectrum, and the spectrum hints at the interpersonal conflicts that Coleridge claims his phenomenological eccentricity reinforces. Coleridge's anthropomorphosis of the weeds--again, weeds--implies that ideas and impressions seem closer to being sociable companions than himself and his peers. The fountain or well is recalled from a perspective in which correspondence is explicitly missing. As we've seen, Coleridge notes that the closer together the philosopher brings his ideas and impressions, the more isolated from other people he is likely to be. Within the term of the spectrum, though, the "happy man" cannot tell--nor does he want to--that apparent companions are "not neighbours."

Postscript: Contemporary Theories of Derealization and Mistrust

In Difference and Disavowal, psychoanalyst Alan Bass describes something complementary to Coleridge's fondness for spectra. He considers "concrete" patients, a term of art for cases characterized by their tendency toward interminable analysis, non-negotiable certainty about specific beliefs, and manipulative interventions in their environments. These traits go together, as the patients protect their convictions by creating environments that support them. One concrete patient, for example, is "in the habit of playing with the plastic tissue box case next to the couch." Finally he confesses that by angling the box, he can see the reflection of the analyst, hence breaking the analytic frame and replacing it with one of his own. (25)

Bass's study of concrete patients is pointed at psychoanalysis, not at the patients. According to Bass, analysts deal poorly with concrete patients--thus leading to interminable situations--because the patients elicit concrete behavior from the analysts. A power struggle over versions of reality ensues. Freud's theory of fetishism similarly duplicates the hallucinatory reification of the fetishist. In a glaring logical slip, Freud writes that the fetishist fantasizes the woman with a penis and disavows the "fact of castration." As Bass points out, "the fetishist's oscillation between the woman's castration and noncastration, however, is an oscillation between two fantasies," only one of which Freud recognizes as a fantasy (30). Or again, "when Klein says that 'the ego endeavours to keep the good apart from the bad, and the real from the phantastic,' she does not notice that what she calls 'the real' is actually fantastic" (181).

The one-sided theory of reality Bass finds in Freud's theory of fetishism appears in the interpretation of Coleridge that most directly addresses his attitude toward phenomenality. Stanley Cavell's reading of Coleridge in In Quest of the Ordinary illustrates his argument in The Claim of Reason and other works that skeptics displace their uncertainty regarding other minds onto objects, and thus animate objects by treating them as though they could sustain uncertainty. Understandable doubt about what's going on in other people leaves room for aggression toward them; object skepticism, Cavell suggests, veils the possibility of aggression by depersonalizing doubt. In his essay on Coleridge, Cavell assimilates idealism to skepticism on the hypothesis that both are motivated by discontent with limits on interpersonal communication and thus attempt "to experience what cannot humanly be experienced." (26) Idealist affirmation--which is to denial what hyperintensity is to derealization--is self-destructive, an "animation" of the world that winds up implying that the world is dead and in need of animation. Like the Ancient Mariner's project of unifying known and unknown parts of the world, it is a "skeptic maneuver" toward the given world for Cavell, "a denial that as we stand, we know" (Q 49). Thus in The Claim of Reason Othello murders Desdemona because he can't possess her absolutely; in epistemological terms, he decides not to know her at all because he can't know everything about her. Othello does not know how to "acknowledge" the distance between oneself and others (Q 50). According to Cavell, the Ancient Mariner is even further from being able to acknowledge distance, since he doesn't even have a concept of distance to acknowledge: his problem is acknowledging proximity. While the Mariner's style of doubt does not lead inevitably to Othello's rejection of relation, the structure of The Claim of Reason--moving from diffident, curious skepticism to tragic, world-annihilating skepticism--implies that it can. At the least, object skepticism fails to advance the confrontation with aggression that might defuse tragedy. In the later Coleridge essay, Cavell sequences the two skepticisms outright, connecting the Mariner's yearning for the unknown to his murder of his animal companion, which Cavell interprets as a hyperbolic attempt to clear a minimal distance.

Cavell's interpretation respects skepticism in that it does not claim that skeptics are seeing the world wrong, yet is surprisingly violent in figuring skepticism as murder. Both skeptics and realists are mistaken, he argues, in their shared assumption that the skeptic is "different" or "incomprehensible" (Q 58). In effect, someone like Coleridge errs not in experiencing derealization, but in overvaluing his experiences and imagining that there is some other kind of experience--something more intense, real, or meaningful. What is striking about this summary of Cavell's argument is how much Coleridge feels this way himself. (27) "No person I can believe--no thing I can disbelieve," Coleridge concurs (N 711). And he too believes that he overvalues his experiences. Although he would of course like to stop having nightmares, what really distresses him is not having nightmares, but being distressed about having nightmares. Most of Coleridge's struggles follow from this position. In this way, his experience suggests that it may not be helpful to propose that skeptics don't need to admit that they have common-sensical perceptions but only need to acknowledge the distance and proximity built into the perceptions they do have. There are two separate problems with this line of thought. The first has a concrete structure, like Freud's slip into belief regarding castration. Cavell treats animism as nothing more than a delusion, with no vivifying effects; but if it is a delusion, then he should not figure skepticism as murder. The "denial" of the world, also, should have no destructive effects. If the point is rather that animism potentially or actually destroys, then, again, skepticism should potentially or actually vivify (as surrealists believe perceptual estrangement vivifies). Second, although Cavell's Othello analysis advocates acknowledgment of mediation, he reasserts a kind of transparency of consciousness on a metalevel. For if denial and acknowledgment were symmetrical, then acknowledgment would mean affirmation. But it cannot mean that, because for Cavell affirmation is a self-destructive trap, deadening through animation. Therefore, acknowledgment must be neither denial nor affirmation. It winds up sounding like just seeing--not seeing the world with entire clarity, but seeing with entire clarity that we see the world in the limited way we do, and that our relations with it and with other people are structurally limited: just seeing this state of affairs rather than protesting or celebrating it. Although Coleridge had some very particular psychological and pharmaceutical circumstances to work with, I don't think you have to be Coleridge in order to feel that this goal is not as pragmatic as it sounds at first.

Nor may it be as desirable. I adduce celebration and protest as emotional extensions of affirmation and denial; Cavell never describes the Mariner's or Coleridge's attitude as a form of protest. "Denial" is not only less emotive than "protest," it's less tenable. One can protest something without denying that it is so or evading one's aggression, and in this sense withhold acceptance not in the sense of recognition but in the sense of endorsement. When the absence of endorsement is conflated with denial, the very possibility of protesting a state of affairs is lost. That conclusion is troubling, since both Cavell and Coleridge assert that perceptual realms are social ones. Perhaps skeptics and idealists are not denying the structural limitations of human communication so much as saying that they don't like these limitations. According to realists, the reason we have to either acknowledge or endorse these limitations is that they make relation possible. The fact that something makes relation possible, of course, does not make the relation good. It's not necessary to reject relation in order to register the residue of dissatisfaction we are left with; and it does not have to be possible for things to be different in order for it to be understandable to want to say that it would be better if they were. Of course, it isn't the traditional task of philosophy to discuss what conditions of knowledge would be better than the ones we have. (28) Hence Coleridge's attraction to the phenomenal, sheltered by supposed irrelevance from his public theological and philosophical interests: only apart from those interests does it become possible to register the dissatisfaction "which will not away."

Hence too the animus of philosophers against the phenomenological imagination, cast as irrelevant, infantile, futile, neurotic, delusive, or destructive. Adorno remarks that at times, emphasis on the mind's limitations "amounts to ... an embargo on further enquiry." (29) Kant's "negative conclusions" and Kant's and Fichte's infinities, he observes, contain the "negative meaning ... that the utopia which is demanded of us should never take place ... and we might almost say that it ought to remain a dream" (27, 73). A parallel embargo on desire inhabits contempt for skeptics, a sentiment something like: "What's the matter? World not good enough for you?" We should ask why it seems so inconceivable, even to people like Coleridge, to answer this question No. For it were not inconceivable--if the thought of this answer did not send us into guilty fantasies of our own deviance--it might no longer sound like denial or ingratitude to say that the structural limitations that shape experience make relation possible without making it tolerably good.

University of California, Irvine

(1.) The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn with Merton Christensen, 4 vols. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957-1990) 925, 1974 (hereafter N).

(2.) A good example, for patient readers, of Coleridge's scientific patience is this entry of 1804: "Tuesday Afternoon, 6 oclock long on my bed within the musquitoe curtain, which was not drawn by its rings all round the iron rods of the bed, but was within half a foot or a foot of my face/the curtain muslin with french grass-like Streaks, a little less than 1/2 an inch broad/divided into three equal parts, the middle red, the 2 outward green/--As I lay, if I directed my eyes on these streaks, & looked at them, I saw them as they were/but when I merely lay, & suffered myself to see them only because they were there, one streak straight before my eye appeared at first to be just by the iron <perpend. rod> at the foot of the bed; but in a moment or so the iron rods were all within the streaks--& by opening voluntarily the pupil of my eyes a little, & rather thinking of them than looking at them, or to me still more accurately, looking at the walls of the room, & merely letting the streaks impress my eye, all these streaks fourfold or more as large as they really were, and much, very much more vivid, lay on the wall up to the very ceiling, bending [begin strikethrough]up to the very[end strikethrough] with the wall & ceiling ([begin strikethrough]an[end strikethrough] which formed an arch); and the iron rods all distinctly within these/--nay, by rapid glances I could produce a momentary sensation of the real streaks in their natural size & faintness, & real situation within the rods that were within these long & vivid Streaks on the wall of the room--The wall was [begin strike through]about[end strike through] just 10 feet from my eyes--a small window right opposite to my eyes, the curtain about 9 feet or 9 1/4 from it/--" (N 2191).

(3.) Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969) 364 (hereafter PW).

(4.) Versions of Coleridge's questions about spectra echo in psychoanalytic and psychiatric discussions of dissociation and in the literature of object relations, especially the work of D. W. Winnicott and Melanie Klein. Particularly relevant are Winnicott's Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1971) and Klein's essays on manic depression and mourning in Contributions to Psycho-Analysis 1921-1945 (London: Hogarth P, 1948).

(5.) See Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989). Martin Harries argues that for John Maynard Keynes, as well as Marx and Zizek, "the supernatural is not an ornamental or accidental discourse, but a necessary one: the supernatural has become an inescapable attribute of history; figuring it does not ward it off, identifying its political influence does not disenchant it" (Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment [Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000] 8-9).

(6.) The situation is not symmetrical because satisfaction with the inevitable is permitted: although it's supposedly perverse to protest or object to untragic natural conditions, it isn't supposedly perverse to acknowledge or affirm the same conditions. It takes someone as justice-obsessed as Wittgenstein to be equally outraged by epistemologically pointless affirmation.

(7.) Tillottama Rajan and Julie Ellison, especially, have pointed out the self-abnegation in Coleridge's sociability, a subordination that renders suspect his desire to form happy alternative Families. "The wish for vicarious gratification, in poems written throughout Coleridge's career, produces stories of self-exclusion," Ellison remarks (Delicate Subjects: Romanticism, Gender, and the Ethics of Understanding [Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990] xii). Rajah reads Coleridge's figuration of auditors within the conversation poems as the invocation of "a surrogate self, through whom the poet must represent himself in a place where he is not." Unlike Wordsworth, "Coleridge remains physically isolated from the being on to whom he projects his own naivete, able to live his dreams only through another and at a distance that seems to negate his claim of proximity to this being." The distance and miscommunication conveyed by all this conversation, she notes, do not lead Coleridge to revise his ideal of conversation: "the inversion of the conversation mode ... rather confirms, from a position of complete despair, a vision which Coleridge is content to celebrate in the mode of exile" (Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism [Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980] 229-30, 233).

(8.) For a similar account of auditory hallucinations see G. Lynn Stephens and George Graham, When Self Consciousness Breaks: Alien Voices and Inserted Thoughts (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

(9.) Coleridge often describes hope as a kind of dread (N 3547). In his sonnet "Composed on a Journey Homeward; the Author Having Received Intelligence of the Birth of a Son, Sept. 20, 1796," Coleridge describes a morbid fantasy that his newborn son is dead "(As sometimes, through excess of hope, I fear)" (PW 154). Coleridge's idea that "motives by excess reverse their very nature" (Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983] 1.303-304) implies that the line in parentheses could be read "As sometimes, through excess of fear, I hope."

(10.) Robert B. Ray, How a Film Theory Got Lost: And Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (Indianapolis: Indiana UP. 2001) 26.

(11.) See N 1770 and Jerome Christensen's commentary on Coleridge's concern that "streaminess of association eddies into the misdirection of bad passions" (Coleridge's Blessed Machine of Language [Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981] 90-93). On Coleridge's interest in vegetation in connection with his "immersion in a continual present-tense of pure phenomenality," see Harold D. Baker, "Landscape as Textual Practice in Coleridge's Notebooks," ELH 59 (1992): 651-70, especially 667.

(12.) "Mere grass" is a good synonym for imaginary moss.

(13.) Colors exemplify the nexus of construction and perception (even in romantic color theory), since their appearance is context-dependent; Coleridge's notebooks show his enjoyment at being able to change the colors of appearances (N 1974, 2094). Coleridge is aware of himself as a colorist, even through the similarity of his name to the word "color." Of an unnamed person--himself? he writes, "Women ... are better judges of his Coloriding, than of his Design & Composition--" (N 4277). To be mostly color would be to be similarly context-dependent.

(14.) Coleridge goes so far as to call the coal fire fantasy "a voluntary poem in ... picture-writing." The metaphor of hieroglyphics--Freud's metaphor for dreams--assimilates controlled perception to the externalization of thoughts in writing, as though what Coleridge saw when he looked at the fire were his writing about it. Writing the account of a spectrum, too, is a final way of prolonging it. "I make this note ... to preserve the circumstance," Coleridge writes of a double image of a single candle (N 1863). While all writing is intended to preserve a circumstance, Coleridge's propensity to time spectra gives his common phrase an uncommon resonance. One of the appeals of always writing something is that writing comes to frame all other relations. Coleridge figures his soul as "a blind man," a writer who must see through his own hieroglyphic, "with his protended Staff dimly thro' the medium of the [begin strike through]act[end strike through] instrument by which it pushes off, & in the act of repulsion" (N 3215).

(15.) Peter Schwenger argues that Coleridge's study of spectra leads him to discover that "dynamics of the framing process.... [generate] vision ... whether it be the hypnagogic substratum made visible, or the shapes of the real world" (Fantasm and Fiction: On Textual Envisioning [Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999] 160, n. 36).

(16.) On Coleridge's distinction between mystics and visionaries, enthusiasts and fanatics, see David Vallins, "The Feeling of Knowledge: Insight and Delusion in Coleridge," ELH 64.1 (Spring 1997): 15-87.

(17.) Thierry de Duve develops Duchamp's concept of the "infra-thin" nominalist line drawn by aesthetic judgment (Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp's Passage from Painting to the Readymade [1984], trans. Dana Polan [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991] 159-61).

(18.) William Cartwright, Comedies, Tragi-comedies, with Other Poems (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1651), quoted in N 1932.

(19.) See Jennifer Ford, Coleridge on Dreaming: Romanticism, Dreams, and the Medical Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998).

(20.) Not too long before Coleridge had noted "The Claw of the Mammoth bird found lately in Siberia, 3 foot--which with the bind Claw would make the foot 6 feet, tho' it had no palm or sole, which is scarcely possible in such a monster/say 7 feet--" (N 3958).

(21.) This charge is expressed well by Merleau-Ponty in Part I of The Phenomenology of Perception (trans. Colin Smith [London: Routledge, 1962], e.g. 28, 38-39). Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology has much to offer as a negative diagnostic of prior philosophies and in its promotion of perceptual ambiguity as a contstructive matrix of experience. However, it reifies that ambiguity in turn, redefining it as reality itself, "the seat and as it were the homeland of our thoughts" (24). For attempts to engage Merleau-Ponty and his critical heirs in contemporary scholarship, see Critical Quarterly 42 (2000), a special issue on "cultural phenomenology" edited by Steven Connor and David Trotter.

(22.) For Coleridge the greatest threats and thrills are tactile; derealization, alienation, and the sense of touch, along with its opposite, numbness, form for Coleridge a "knot of ideas" or "involute" of the kind that John Barrell finds in De Quincey (The Infection of Thomas de Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism [New Haven: Yale UP, 1991] 32). One of his pet ideas is that a touch can be remembered, then transferred like any association to a variety of objects. Coburu points out that Coleridge's friend and fellow afficianado of spectra Tom Wedgwood was also "very much interested in the subject of touch, and in the psychology of children" (note to N 838). See also Raimonda Modiano, "Coleridge's Views on Touch and other Senses," Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 81 (1978): 28-41. This thought of the touch of a being that cannot be distinctly perceived sounds like a memory of infantile hyperstimulation. The idea of a primal touch only emphasizes the sense of imposition already present in the primal scene. Jean Laplanche dramatizes this sense well: "l'enfant, impuissant dam son berceau, c'est Ulysse lie au poteau ou Tamale, auquel on impose et on intromet le spectacle du coit parental" (Vie et mort en psychanalyse [Paris: Flammarion, 1970] 155).

(23.) Coleridge declares that he is "convinced by repeated Observation, that [begin strike through]if not[end strike through] perhaps always in a very minute degree, [begin strike through]yet certainly[end strike through] but assuredly in certain states ... we see our own faces, and project them, according to the distance given them by the degree of indistinctness.... this may occasion in the highest degree the Wraith, (vide a hundred Scotch Stories, but better than all Wordsworth's most wonderful as well as admirable Poem, Peter Bell, where he sees his own Figure") (N 2583).

(24.) Ellipses indicate passages in cipher.

(25.) Alan Bass, Difference and Disavowal: The Trauma of Eros (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000) 13.

(26.) In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988) 50 (hereafter Q). Thanks to David Mikics for his contributions to my understanding of Cavell, as well as many other elements of this essay.

(27.) Cavell may even be suggesting that Coleridge feels this way, since it isn't clear whether he thinks Coleridge endorses the motives of the Ancient Mariner, whose actions resemble Othello's.

(28.) Alternatively, the history of epistemology can indeed be read as a series of imaginings of conditions that should pertain, disguised as descriptions of the ones that do.

(29.) Theodor W. Adorno, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason [1995], trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000) 47.
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Author:Terada, Rei
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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