The Poet As Rebel: Inside Coleridge’s Pleasure Dome

[Editor’s note: Below is the second part of Prof. Thomas F. Bertonneau’s essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the imagination. Though insightful and thought-provoking in itself, we would encourage you to read the whole essay, beginning with part one, “A Vision In A Dream: S. T. Coleridge on Imagination and Politics,” which we published previously.]

Part II: Metascience, Scientism, and Politics

Contemporary academic discourse cannot understand Coleridge. Dominated by the “isms” and by what Harold Bloom calls The School of Resentment, recent commentary on “Kubla Khan,” for example, ponders the question to what degree the poem’s “gendered” imagery reflects the poet’s adherence to the ancient and oppressive “Patriarchy” that it is the virtue of the postmodern era, as modernity now styles itself, finally and conclusively to deconstruct. The poem’s erotic metaphors – “But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! / A savage place! as holy and enchanted / As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted / By woman wailing for her demon-lover!” – belong to the regime of male domination of the female and of the invidious propaganda of the male principle as active and the female as passive. Thus in an article on “Coleridge’s Muses and Feminist Criticism,” a critic writes: “Shaped by a masculine sexuality to which women become victims, the Khan’s dome is a place in which women’s suffering and desire are heard as one in the sound of a ‘savage’ wail.” Notice the verbal sleight-of-hand: Coleridge’s “woman” becomes the critic’s women, in the plural, all of whom (naturally) are “victims.”

Andrea Mantegna. Roundel with Putti and Ladies Looking Down, (1465-74)
Andrea Mantegna, Roundel with Putti and Ladies Looking Down (1465-74).

The critic misses the actual victimary imagery at the conclusion of Coleridge’s poem (called by its author a “Fragment”), where the encircling, imminent sparagmos finds its focus in an object undeniably male. To explain the prominence of the “damsel with a dulcimer” in Coleridge’s poem, the critic claims that “the male poet does not absorb, or wish to absorb, the feminine; rather, he seeks to retain it as the other within the self.” But this observation distinguishes insufficiently between Coleridge as author and the first-person singular of the verses, considered as an element of the poem. Ideology ever diminishes consciousness and stultifies criticism.

Another reason the understanding of Coleridge eludes the modern mentality is that the modern mentality sits bounded within the narrow horizons of three consciousness-restricting mandates: Moral utilitarianism, epistemological relativism, and radical materialism or naturalism. In the old argument between Coleridge and Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), the modern mentality invariably sides with Bentham, the codifier of Utilitarianism, whose founding gesture abolishes metaphysics in favor of political consensus. Coleridge wrote of “the canting foppery of the Benthamite or Malthusian schools.” In a note from 20 August 1831, Coleridge critiques the Benthamite principle of “the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number.” He argues that “happiness” is a concept too subjective and too tied to the experience of pleasure to serve as the precept of a polity.

What means the Utilitarian by happiness, Coleridge wants to know; and “how does he propose to make other persons agree in his definition of the term”? As Coleridge points out, “The American savage, in scalping his fallen enemy, pursues his happiness naturally and adequately.” It follows logically that, “A Chickasaw or Pawnee Bentham… would necessarily hope for the most frequent opportunities possible of scalping the greatest possible number of savages, for the longest possible time.” Utilitarianism, depending on a survey of irreconcilable preferences, issues in moral and logical absurdity.

As for materialism, one of the presumptions of Bentham’s worldview, it strikes Coleridge as a petulant evasion of reality. In a note collected in the posthumous Anima Poetae Coleridge writes: “Materialists unwilling to admit the mysterious element of our nature make it all mysterious – nothing mysterious in nerves, eyes, etc., but that nerves think, etc.! Stir up the sediment into the transparent water, and so make all opaque.” Any physical thing, to which the materialist points as the cause of something else, can only so rank in the most meaningless way, as when one billiard ball bounces another. The billiard balls and their traffic belong to the realm of phenomena or representations. In his treatise On Method (1818), Coleridge remarks that, “The solution of phaenomena can never be derived from phaenomena.” Just as “heat… in the thawing of ice… may appear only in its effects”; so too the caroming of billiard balls, if it conformed to a pattern, would have a higher cause, remaining unseen, and yet intelligible, in the laws governing kinetic energy.

Coleridge notices that laws have a pattern, forming their own category, from which he derives a Law of Laws, or “law in its absolute perfection.” To this latter, “law in its absolute perfection,” Coleridge next ascribes the status of an object whose subject can only be “the Supreme Being, whose creative idea not only appoints each thing to its position, but in that position, and in consequence of that position, gives it its qualities, yea, gives it its very existence, as that particular thing.”

The science of his day, Coleridge argues, has lost sight of “grounds and principles necessary to method, as the science common to all sciences.” Without metaphysics, and suppressing the intuition of a capitalized Being that Coleridge asserts as the basis of consciousness, “ingenious men may produce schemes conducive to the peculiar purposes of particular sciences, but no scientific system.” The science of his day, however, Coleridge regards as merely symptomatic of the mentality of his day, for which his word is “alienated.” Botany catalogues endlessly, economists quantify, and Benthamite politicians take opinion-polls to establish the reigning, or as Coleridge would put it fluxional, definition of happiness. It is not that these errands exhibit no method whatever but rather that they exhibit “the lowest attempt at a methodical arrangement” of the phenomena that concern them. Such mere “enormous nomenclature” can never, therefore, pass into genuine theory.

The concept of theory has occurred earlier in the present discussion in connection with Coleridge’s poetry and with his theory of poetry. Poetry and theory stand close to one another in Coleridge’s thinking. In both poetry and theory the subject attempts to discover, beyond the pattern of relation in things, that is to say the law governing those relations, the essence and meaning of each thing. “For no man,” Coleridge writes, “can confidently conceive a fact to be universally true who does not with equal confidence anticipate its necessity, and who does not believe that necessity to be demonstrated by an insight into its nature, whenever and wherever such insight can be obtained.” The modern fact-man indeed resembles an ancient fetish-worshipper. Coleridge adduces stellar religion, from Babylon to Rome, as his case in point. The antique astrologers of the Milky Way, Coleridge asserts, “determined to receive nothing as true, but what they derived, or believed themselves to derive from their senses, or (in the modern phrase) what they could prove a posteriori, they became idolaters of the heavens and the material elements.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Kublai Khan.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (left), and Kublai Khan (right).

All Coleridge’s contemporaries who endorsed any of the varieties of materialism or mechanism in those days differed not at all from their stultified precursors, who based their lives on star-gazing; nor do their successors today differ from men of the past who submitted to the demands of an illusory Horoscope. The astrological worldview was deterministic, in contradiction with free will, and encouraging, for those reasons, of a hedonistic and often cruel conduct of life. To Coleridge’s critique of science without metaphysics should be juxtaposed another insight from the treatise On Method. “It is strange,” Coleridge writes, “yet characteristic of the spirit that was at work during the latter half of the last century, and of which the French revolution was, I hope, the closing monsoon, that the writings of Plato should be accused of estranging the mind from sober experience and substantial matter of fact, and of debauching it by fictions and generalities.” One or two associations will underscore the remark’s relevance: Plato was the student of Socrates, who became the scapegoat of the Athenians in the aftermath of the war with Sparta, which Athens, that most reasonable of all polities, began and in which Athens committed genocide and suffered humiliating defeat; the emblem of the French Revolution was the guillotine, that scientific instrument of penal fatality whose swooping blade dispatched the enemies of the regime during the Terror – in the name, of course, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

The concluding lines of “Kubla Khan” once again recommend themselves:

Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Most readers of “Kubla Khan” assume that Coleridge endorses the pleasure-dome without qualification. Rather: A qualified endorsement. The pleasure-dome stands for original creation; it is a product of Genius, which overcomes sterile ritual. The ritual circle of the concluding verses would represent the diminution of consciousness in the form of regression back to the stultified idolatry that the Khan’s making overcame. If the lyric subject today sought to imitate the Khan’s Genius, the Pawnee Benthams would object. Men become alienated from the ideas and the polity degenerates. Thus the stars require sacrifice, the Revolution requires sacrifice, and the man who declares the lifeless nullity of star-idols or the doctrine-idols (Blasphemer!) always makes a useful scapegoat. A Twenty-First Century critic, as we have seen, weaves a circle around Coleridge for the infraction of having exercised his “male sexuality” in such a way as “to retain… the [female] other within the self.” The sexist poet stands in the way of the pleasure-dome, Reason’s utopia; and the more stubbornly the utopia fails to appear, the greater the need to cry sexist or racist or xenophobe or whatever might be la condamnation de la journée.

Barfield first called to notice Coleridge’s precedence to Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and others as a diagnostician of scientism. Barfield employed the term metascience to name Coleridge’s errand to reestablish the organic linkage of metaphysics and physics, indeed of mind and perception. In his essay on “Thinking and Thought” (1927), Barfield characterizes Romanticism as the effort to breathe life back into dead perceptions. “Abstract thought,” the cold stuff of scientism, “has death in it,” as Barfield writes and as Coleridge saw; it deals with “objects fixed and dead,” to borrow a Coleridgean phrase. In Barfield’s historical summation: “By the end of the eighteenth century… the power to think in a living way may be considered as having died right out. The man of the eighteenth century lived in a clockwork cosmos… remote from truth.” Developing this basic idea thirty years later in Saving the Appearances (1957), Barfield chose the subtitle A Study in Idolatry. “Idolatry,” Barfield writes, “is an ugly and emphatic word and it was deliberately chosen to emphasize certain ugly features, and still more certain ugly possibilities, inherent in the present situation.” Barfield refers to what might justly bear the name epistemological idolatry, under the false light of which the subject experiences phenomena “non-representationally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness.” Barfield concedes that this distinctly Cartesian view is useful. Western technology is based on it. The astonishing feats of manipulative prowess come nevertheless with a price: The “fragmentation of science,” “no unity of knowledge,” and a persistent tendency “to eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos.”

Barfield’s usage of the term idolatry is homage to none other than Coleridge, who used it similarly in his critique of the earlier phase of the modern, scientistic mentality. Recall Coleridge’s remark on the French Revolution that it reviled Plato that is, it rejected metaphysics. In the Revolution, the intellectual descent happens simultaneously with a political descent, in which objectification draws the human mass within its field as though no individual were more than an object, ready to be manipulated in the great mobilizing scheme. In “France: An Ode” (1798), Coleridge records his own early excitement at news of La Bastille and his subsequent revaluation of the event:

The Sensual and Dark rebel in vain,
Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game
They burst their manacles and wear the name
Of Freedom, graven on a heavier chain!

In the capitalized adjectives, “Sensual” and “Dark,” Coleridge symbolizes the matter-bound and opaque mental character of the Cultists of Civic Virtue, who would enforce their shibboleths by naked coercion. In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote how “a debility and dimness of imaginative power… render[s] the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” Twenty years earlier, in “Fears in Solitude” (1798), Coleridge saw the revolutionaries of 1789 as “dupes of delusion,” as “impious and false,” and as “a light yet cruel race… mingling mirth with deeds of murder.” Revolution, Coleridge writes in The Statesman’s Manuel (1810), “is a science of cosmopolitanism without a country, of philanthropy without neighbourliness or consanguinity, in short, of all the impostures of that philosophy… which would sacrifice each to the shadowy idol of all.”

Traditionalists think of Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) and Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) as the great counter-revolutionary philosophers. Coleridge belongs with them. Coleridge, like de Maistre, saw that the political upheavals of his time maintained an intimate relation with the diminution of consciousness implied by the doctrines of materialism and naturalism. Coleridge did not possess the word scientism, no more than did de Maistre, but he knew that which it signifies. He could see, moreover, that the diminution of consciousness under specious doctrines was a trend, and that, unchecked, it would be disastrously upward-trending. As an expression of “the brute passions and physical force of the multitude” acting under the sanction of “abstract reason,” the scientistic attitude, that monstrum hybridum of the age, would thrash like a Leviathan, leaving the wreckage of humanity in its path.

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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