Tuesday, November 3, 2015

from the loom of his own magical brain

Maundering about the vocabulary of individualisms I went to pull some sentences out of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817). “Essence, in its primary signification, means the principle of individuation, the inmost principle of the possibility of any thing, as that particular thing. It is equivalent to the idea of a thing, whenever we use the word idea, with philosophical precision. Existence, on the other hand, is distinguished from essence by the superabundance of reality.” My attention dragged aside by what Oxford University Press in its one of the abstracts for its Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to as the “components of his eclectically derivative corpus and compulsively devious practice,” and like hundreds of other readers I looked at the many ways this man could find to be himself without admitting it, or only admitting it with a hiding-flirting methodology; how the fake friend (who was himself) wrote him a letter so pangyrical that it seemed calculated to make you suspicious though not conclusively accusing; how he prefaced his plagiarism of Schelling by admitting that the words he was about to write were ahemmingly similar to passages from the untranslated System de transscendentalen Idealismus (1800), “many of the most striking resemblances, indeed all the main and fundamental ideas, were born and matured in my mind before I had ever seen a single page of the German Philosopher,” a fig leaf that no one pulled off until he was dead, which is not the same as saying that nobody had noticed.

After this, what was my astonishment to find that the entire essay, from the first word to the last, is a verbatim translation from Schelling, with no attempt in a single instance to appropriate the paper by developing the arguments or by diversifying the illustrations? Some other obligations to Schelling, of a slighter kind, I have met with in the Biographia Literaria; but this was a barefaced plagiarism, which could in prudence have been risked only by relying too much upon the slight knowledge of German literature in this country, and especially of that section of the German literature.

Thomas de Quincey, Literary and Lake Reminiscences (1834-40)

De Quincey forewords with a bit of magic, “Eight hundred or a thousand years hence, some reviewer may arise who having read the Biographia Literaria of Coleridge, will afterwards read the Philosophical ______ of Schelling, the great Bavarian professor -- a man in some respects worthy to be Coleridge's assessor; and he will then make a singular discovery.” The reviewer in “eight hundred” is identical with de Quincey himself. But how is his information going to be smothered again so that it can arrive freshly, as if for the first revelation, in a thousand years? The request for fantasy complicity against a fantasy contaminant is eccentric; Coleridge was eccentric when he plagiarised Schelling*, C. was stealing, de Q. was dobbing on a dead man, both of them hoping to put a hiding smudge over the mark of wrongness, the evidence, the words, the print, the literature, those things that are the reality but not the essence – no -- they can both say – it’s fine, my essence is right -- distinct – (too many men have written books, said Dorothy Richardson, as if they were controlling an impressive science problem).

*”Had, then, Coleridge any need to borrow from Schelling? Did he borrow in forma pauperis? Not at all: there lay the wonder. He spun daily, and at all hours, for mere amusement of his own activities, and from the loom of his own magical brain, theories more gorgeous by far, and supported by a pomp and luxury of images such as neither Schelling -- no, nor any German that ever breathed, not John Paul -- could have emulated in his dreams. With the riches of El Dorado lying about him, he would condescend to filch a handful of gold from any man whose purse he fancied, and in fact reproduced in a new form, applying itself to intellectual wealth, that maniacal propensity which is sometimes well known to attack enormous proprietors and millionaires for acts of petty larceny.” (ibid)


  1. i was under whelmed by b.l.; with some foreknowledge of schelling and kant, his opinions seemed a bit derivative. but i really didn't like his negativity re wordsworth after they had their little disagreement. de quincy and coleridge both were adversely subsumed in the opium habit which altered their senses of morality and self awareness, i feel. actually i much prefer southey even though he wasn't the genius that the others were; but at least he was honest and hard working. coleridge was admired for his public oratory, but then so was hitler.

  2. Adam Roberts has put together a new edition of Biographia Literaria that is tempting (to find at a library). I only read the book in the sense of turning all of the pages and should try again.

  3. The more footnotes the better I think, looking at the description of that Adam Roberts edition. I tend to like the Biographia Literaria more as a nexus of information than as a book. De Quincey is willing to look like the class clown but Coleridge wants to be admired and respected, and all of his misrepresentations slant at that angle. He wants to be wise, that's his weakness.

    1. right on. i found the language in b. l. difficult but persevered for some reason; kept hoping it would become more meaningful, i guess. i saw signs of an inferiority complex or something there, which is why he acted like you said he did.