Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought, part third

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At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had ben a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.63–66)

Greetings all. Thanks so much to Ash Nichols for his comment on my previous, concerning the ways Romantic poetry can get its natural history wrong. I'm going to have to think about this one before I reply to it, so stand by. But I think my paradoxical reading (below) might go some way towards addressing the last couple of remarks—that the traditional reading of the shooting of the albatross has to do with disrupting some kind of natural continuum. Ash very reasonably wonders why this is any worse than, say, shooting a turkey for Thanksgiving.

And thanks to Ron Broglio for his comment on “worlding” and Uexküll, Heidegger's source. It's not surprising to me that Heidegger edits animals out of the worlding club. Only humans can have a world, while animals are “poor in world,” German Weltarm. Like most continental philosophers, he wants to assert that there is a radical discontinuity between humans and animals. In a recent anthology of such writing, I was amazed to find a still-living writer who proudly “rejects” the theory of evolution. This to my mind is like rejecting the three-sidedness of triangles!

The haughtiness with which this rejection is performed is quite extraordinary to one who has spent several months reading all the Darwin he could get his hands on. It's like something out of Gulliver's Travels.

So then, to work...

It struck me that while the sun is personfied as “he” (see “Part Second” below), the Albatross is reified as an “it.” Given the isomorphism between the two phrases (“Out of the sea came he,” 1.26 / “Thorough the fog it came,” 1.64) I don't think we can ignore this. Coleridge does indeed emphasize the inert density of the sheer existence of the life form. This gives “As if it had been a Christian soul” the full weight of its disturbing “As if”-ness.

The “As if” has the force of a fetishistic disavowal: “We knew very well that the Albatross wasn't a human soul, nevertheless, we acted as if it did have one.” Isn't this the beginning of the end for the rather trite conclusion at the end of the poem—that you should love “All things both great and small” (7.615), because God made and loves them? By the late eighteenth century this conclusion was already trite. It sounds like a regression from the extraordinary stance of the sailors, who are willing to “suspend their belief,” their “lifeworld” (a good God made and loves all creatures, in a paternalistic, safe fashion), and treat an “it” as a “soul.”

Far from pantheism, what the sailors achieve in Part 1 is in fact a radical form of non-theistic Christianity, taking seriously the idea that God died on the cross. The death of God and the death of the theistic cultural lifeworld (“To walk together to the kirk, / And all together pray,” 7.605–606—n.b. the Scots dialect, which localizes the sentiment within a certain cultural horizon), with its comforting concentric hierarchies (the “goodly company” of “Old men, and babes, and loving friends...,” 7.604, 7.608), provide far more plausible explanations for why the Wedding Guest leaves the “bridegroom's door” “like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn” (7.621–623), than the editorializing injunction to love “all things” (7.615). The bottom has fallen out of the Wedding Guest's world. Why?

Because the encounters with sentient beings in The Ancient Mariner are not encounters with members of a holistic lifeworld. They are encounters with what I call the strange stranger, the ultimate way of welcoming (other) life forms. More on this as we proceed. But for now let's note a startling conclusion. This is not a pantheist poem at all. In fact, what makes it most “ecological” is what makes it least pantheist. What makes it ecological is its disturbing, relentless intimacy, intimacy with the “it,” with Death and Life-in-Death, with “slimy things” (4.238), and so on.

Maybe the sailors are desperate for help. Maybe they are lonely. Whatever the reason, they greet the Albatross “As if it had been a Christian soul,” half knowing that their response is exorbitant. This greeting is perverse. Ecological ideology has thus far been virile, masculine, heteronormative, ablist and extravert (what else is wrong with it?!). The Ancient Mariner and his crew appear to outline a way of ecological existence that is still in our future. Beyond nature, beyond the lifeworld (“Below the kirk, below the hill,” 1.23), beyond holism, beyond sentimentalism.

Just as the Albatross emerges from the thick, intense “element” of ice and fog, as if the ice and fog had grown a face, so the sailors pick “it” out of the surrounding field of “it”s and “hail it,” welcome it “in God's name” (1.65–66). This is on the way to love at its extreme: out of “all things” in the Universe (7.615), I pick you. It already has something “evil” about it, something disrupting to the cozy lifeworld. Far from being a gesture of pantheist inclusiveness and holism, the welcome radically disturbs the “balance of nature.”

To love another creature is a perverse choice, not a “letting be” or a snuggling together in a predetermined lifeworld. Isn't the message of Frankenstein, which borrows heavily from this poem, to love sentient beings as people even when they aren't people? We are getting into cyborg territory here, and we will have to think about Artificial Intelligence, about treating all “it”s as “you.”

The Albatross is the second disturbing “face” in the poem. We've already experienced a rupture of the lifeworld with the presence of the Ancient Mariner himself, who to the Wedding Guest also appears as an “It”: “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1). This stranger too has the disturbing inertia of sheer existence, what Lévinas calls the “there is.” Lévinas's image of the “there is” is the night: “I pass, like night, from land to land” says the Mariner, a walking poem (7.586). This walking poem, the “saying” of the Mariner, outlives and drastically dominates the Mariner as flesh and blood, “wrenching” him with “agony” (7.577–578) and compelling him to speak it. It is the Mariner who tacks on the trite sentiment that we live in a lifeworld that is not to be disrupted. The “Mariner-poem” speaks a far more disturbing truth. (See David Haney's book on Coleridge and ethics for further discussion; and see Paul Youngquist's review too).

The sailors' welcome was prepared for, “in the offing,” otherwise the Albatross would just have been another phenomenon of the “element.” The sailors, in other words, were already in a position of vulnerability towards the other, already marked by the other's existence. Existence is already coexistence. The Albatross is the Messianic “arrivant,” the absolutely unexpected arrival, the one we can never predict, but whose shadow falls into our world, in the disturbing proximity of all strangers.

In the same way, the “It is” of the ancient Mariner himself (1.1) compels us to imagine his existence prior to the beginning of the poem itself. He's already there, as if some lines were missing: “Who the hell is that? It is an ancient Mariner.” Any attempt to create a cozy world thus edits out this existence, beyond the beginning. Beyond the lifeworld, beyond Being, the ecological thought is intimacy with the strange stranger. (More about them in the next post.)

(When I use “beyond” in the previous paragraph, I mean it in a special sense—not as in “over yonder” in a more hugely encompassing horizon than we can grasp, but “right here,” too close for comfort.)

The Judaeo-Christian reading of this poem is by no means at odds with the most profoundly ecological one. They are the same reading.

Shelley did have it right. Poems are from the future.

Onwards, onwards to line 66!

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