Thursday, November 12, 2015
choose but hear
Hugh Kenner, mentioning the "peaked cap" that James Joyce gave to the character Frank, drew the reader's attention to a photograph of Joyce with his hands in his pockets on the streets of Dublin, and there, said Kenner, there on his head, was the peaked cap. I realised that I had never thought of real peaked caps as I was reading that story and if I wanted to be honest then the hat in the picture was not a hat that I would have described with the phrase "peaked cap," or not "peaked" because "cap" would have occurred to me; but not "peaked." On other pages in The Pound Era (1971) I was willing to believe that Kenner and myself were in correspondence but with this material evidence reproduced in front of me I could not go along with him and so I watched as the triumph of his discovery appeared to contract in upon him and draw him away from me into a state of distinct separation, like Mars, or like those Greek gods who come down to give you your impulses and problems before restoring themselves to the clouds or to Olympus. What is it about Coleridge that amazes me when I witness the machinery that is his fake friend who wrote the letter in the Literaria, and who was not his friend, and the letter was not a letter but a piece of writing in the same way that other chapters were pieces of writing (ie, written by Coleridge himself), and in fact this letter was replacing the actually nonexistent piece of writing that Coleridge told you he was suppressing in obedience to the opinions of the friend who wrote the letter? He asks you to imagine himself, the essayist, sacrificing his philosophical intelligence for the good of the public, when really he was happy and relieved -- for it was easy to promise a chapter about the theory of "esemplastic power" and then replace it with a letter, he said to his publisher in another letter; it "was written without taking my pen off the paper except to dip it in the inkstand," that panegyric dodge was the simplest and fastest thing to write in the whole book, the most natural thing, just as it was easier for the Ancient Mariner to chuck his stories off on strangers by pulling them up with eye-glittering stratagems than it was for him to establish a mutual conversation in an ordinary tone with sensitive and well-chosen questions about the other person's friends and family. He could have begun by telling the Guest that it was very interesting to hear that someone was getting married and he hoped the bride was nice and by the way here is a story about a bird he shot once; he hopes you don't like birds. (Trigger warning.)
What wish fulfilment is this for the author of the Ancient Mariner, "He cannot choose but hear," followed by a monologue that leaves the one on the receiving end a "sadder and a wiser man" without any of the reciprocation that might have given the poor Guest the satisfying sense that he, too, was an interesting human being in some way, and not just a sounding board, echo-cave, or inadvertent visitor to one of the haunted houses that the shopping centres around here were erecting in their carparks a week and a half ago? What's this gunslinger fantasy of the human amazement who bursts into the frame, shocks the world, then zooms off? The Guest has to make a little struggle before he can be subdued; so too the poet assumes a resistance on the part of the audience as he constructs his easy letter; he invents the "reader who, like myself [ie, the imaginary friend], is neither prepared nor perhaps calculated for the study of so abstruse a subject so abstrusely treated" and "will, as I have before hinted, be almost entitled to accuse you of a sort of imposition on him," "persons [...] who feel no interest in the subjects," and "many to whose unprepared minds your speculations on the esemplastic power would be utterly unintelligible," generally conjuring up the presence of an audience that needs Coleridge to repress his philosophical essay -- which nonetheless is a stunner, says the friend, who has read it, making him the only being in the entire history of the world who has done so, not excluding Coleridge himself.