The ecological thought—a ghastly fugue
Hi, hey, hulloo, hello, and hail…
Kurt Fosso’s recent posting got me thinking about the gloss of the Rime. There may be several ways of reading Coleridge’s frequent glosses and frames. There’s the possibility of a sort of “naive-sophisticated” frame—maybe we should call it Level 1—where the frame says, in effect, “What you are about to read is made up.” (This may be Mike Wiley’s hypothesis about the raven poem—hi Mike!) Then there’s a Level 2 frame, which uses the effect of Level 1 in a paradoxical way, to disinhibit the reader: “Don’t worry, this is just a fiction.” Then I guess there’s Level 3, where Levels 1 and 2 are used to create an “impossible” subject position that combines utter literalness and aesthetic distance. Level 3 frames are popular in horror movies, where the director or other spokesperson says “Warning! This is going to be horrific,” and then it is. This seems to combine Level 2 and Level 1 frames. Something like Level 2 (if not 3) happens in “Kubla Khan” when STC says “Don’t worry, this isn’t really a poem, just a psychological curiosity, a sort of brain scan.” Weave a circle round the poem thrice, as it were…
Question: are animals and irony always on opposite poles? Wouldn’t this reproduce the human–nonhuman boundary? Animals = authenticity, irony = humanity…?
I’m not sure exactly how the gloss works yet regarding our ecological theme, but I have some ideas, thanks to Kurt, which I’ll try to post.
On the subject of animal-poems, animal-as-poem, etc., there’s Ted Hughes’s “The Thought-Fox,” which makes a big deal of this metaphor. Heideggerian readers can knock themselves out on line 1: “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest.”
I started another blog dealing with philosophical, scientific, political, and aesthetic issues on ecology. It’s called Ecology without Nature. All comers welcome. It features a link to a talk I gave recently on cognition and poetry (and their environmental implications).
As I thought about where we are with this reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I started to think about the poem’s use of the word “ghastly.”
Here’s our dictionary again:
OED “ghastly,” a. 1. a. In early use: Causing terror, terrible (obs.). In mod. use (cf. 2): Suggestive of the kind of horror evoked by the sight of death or carnage; horrible, frightful, shocking.
b. colloq. Said hyperbolically of persons or things objectionable on various grounds: Shocking, ‘frightful’.
2. a. (Influenced by GHOST: cf. quot. 1711.) Like a spectre, or a dead body; death-like, pale, wan. Of light: Lurid.
b. of a smile, a grin. [Hello, I say to myself...]
c. said of immaterial things.
3. Full of fear, inspired by fear. Obs.
If ecology doesn’t speak about ghosts, it loses a crucial dimension of reality. The psychic dimension is not an optional component.
If at bottom the ecological thought is the (traumatic) encounter with the strange stranger, then ecology is uncanny all the way down. This intuition is confirmed by a brief study of Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” in which he makes potent references to experiences of being in an environment—lost in winding streets, lost in a forest. (Robert Smith eat your heart out.)
Where Coleridge’s poem reaches its most “supernatural,” in its excess over the natural, is precisely where we find the ecological. Recursively, the Mariner talks of his telling:
“Oh shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!”
The Hermit crossed his brow.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?”
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 7.574–590)
It is precisely when the Mariner talks of his uncanny compulsion to repeat that we glimpse the ecological dimension of his tale’s very form. This form comes again and again, like a viral code. Isn’t that the disturbing thing about nature—that it keeps on going, and going, and going, like the Energizer Bunny?
Yet what we habitually call “nature” seems to be sandwiched between a bottom level that is pure automatic self-replication (the genome); and a top level that is also curiously repetitive—the psychic. It is as if when we speak of “nature” we edit out these viral levels. Both levels are “ghastly,” since this word names both flesh and immaterial things. This ghastliness is both alive and dead at once—I’m tempted to say undead. A “ghastly” light is lurid—death-colored and wan, or glowing with too much life.
The tale itself is a “selfish meme” that takes over the poor body of the Mariner. Isn’t that the minimum definition of a psyche—an alien force that possesses us, makes us do its bidding? Isn’t the psyche itself a kind of partial object that takes the body over and dominates it?
And isn’t this the truth of the “selfish gene,” too—that life forms and their environments (which they co-create and co-sustain) are basically vehicles for gene propagation? So from the gene’s and from the psyche’s points of view, we are the same—we are zombies, living dead.
So the tale, portrayed here as a kind of vomit that grips the Mariner from the inside until he ejects it—or even as viral DNA whose vector is the Mariner’s speech—marvelously combines both genomic and “memetic” levels.
This would be true of the title of the tale itself. “Rime” is rhyme, and hoar-frost (OED, “rime,” n1.1, n.2.a.). Like rime, viruses are basically gigantic, monstrous crystals. The moon in the sky in part 4 “bemocked the sultry main / Like April hoar-frost spread” (4.267–268). It is as if, like a crystal, the viral structure appears to repeat at different levels of the text.
(Actually, “rime” n.3 is Old English for number, or reckoning. We are dealing with iteration, with mathematical structures—crystals and rhymes, and viruses. And thus with the possibility of iterations that don’t stop—with infinity. See the Infinite Interlude.)
A “ghastly” tale indeed (7.584), a tale of animated bodies, a “ghastly crew” (5.340). These are not souls that consist of some ethereal substance from beyond “this side” of reality. Instead, we witness souls as ghasts, as specters—as a disturbing distortion of this side itself. The “Christian soul” which the sailors perversely impute to the Albatross is the second of these “ghasts”—the first being the Mariner himself.
Wordsworth criticized the poem for having a wholly passive protagonist. Yet it is this very passivity that shows us the zero degree of ecological being, which is irreducibly a being-with. And a bisection of living tissue by these monstrous, replicating hosts—genome and psyche.
The ghastly intimate, yet external—extimate—quality of the tale appears in the face of Life-in-Death, “that woman” from the “spectre-bark” (3.189, 3.202). She emerges from a distance, not out of a beyond, for she exists on this side of reality. That’s what’s so disturbing about her. As the Mariner watches the “speck” of the “spectre” ship growing ever closer, it’s like looking down a microscope at an “animalcule” that gets ever bigger as the magnification increases; peering with irresistible fascination at a squirming life form, its cilia wafting “Like restless gossameres” (3.184). The death ship is already within the Mariner’s field of vision. It does not appear out of nowhere, but is simply there when the Mariner looks westwards. There like he is: “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1).
On one level, then, the “spectre” ship and its crew are the gaze of science, looking back at us from the point of view of the object of science itself. This code becomes very explicit in Frankenstein. It’s not the content, but the authoritarian coldness, of scientific discourse, which the ecological thought must melt. Life-in-Death “thicks man’s blood with cold” (3.194).
Life-in-Death is not a figure of horrifying power, but of horrifying vulnerability. She is both psyche, pure appearance—red lips, yellow locks and all—and infected flesh—“Her skin was white as leprosy” (3.192)—naturally we expect skin as white as snow, or something. She is an animated doll, and fantasy realized in the external realm, a nightmare. It would not be hard to dismiss her as a misogynistic cartoon of Phallic Woman.
Yet this dismissal would miss her vulnerability, her passivity (yes, her cartoon-like, puppet-like appearance), which is precisely what is so disturbing about her. After all, she is casting dice for the souls of the crew, which implies that she might lose. Life-in-Death is a bacterial Cinderella, and isn’t Cinderella’s passivity also what disturbs?Like the Mariner himself, then, whom the Wedding Guest starts to dread with his “skinny hand” and deathly appearance (4.224–227).
Life-in-Death is a being from our inner space, yet also from external, extra-psychic space. It is as if the poem is daring us to eject her, to vomit at the sight of her. She is no petrifying Medusa.
Life-in-Death’s very face appears eaten away by disease. Not that we know for sure that the face is indeed diseased. Very skillfully, and economically, Coleridge superimposes pure feminine appearance (“As white as”) and the self-replicating, asexual subroutines of deadly infection (“As white as leprosy”). Above all, Life-in-Death is a face, a face in all its terrifying carnality. This is the face of undead life, of life as undead. The face of a psyche, and the face of viral replication. Not a cute Disney “animal” face. A strange stranger face.
What a gift this face is for the ecological thought!
Can we possibly listen to this face, talk with it, coexist with it? In a softer key, part 4 encourages us to think about lingering with disgusting beings. Can we linger here, at the palpitating heart of the nightmare?
What we need to examine is the pornographic “cold” with which Life-in-Death “thicks man’s blood” (3.194)—it is precisely the reaction of the masculine subject to this exposed, vulnerable being that is the problem. This is a poem about phobia and intimacy, intimacy-phobia.
The ecological thought consists in a progressive coming to terms with abjection, disgust and grief. And with the zero degree of life as monstrous, random replication.
In fact, rather wonderfully, the theoretical framework of the ecological thought replicates the “top” and “bottom” levels of “life”—the viral and the psychic. It’s a strange brew of life sciences and Lévinas, Dawkins and Derrida.
With its witches’ oils (part 2) and its water snakes (part 4), the Rime approaches, then backs away from, the frontal horror of Life-in-Death. Let’s linger with her face some more, in the next installment. For the encounter with the strange stranger is exactly this encounter with a nightmarish, inconsistent, incomplete being that gives the lie to metaphysical terms such as “organism,” “life form,” “mind,” and “person.”