Do you think poetry was ever generally understood—or can be? Is the business of it to tell people what they know already, as they know it and so precisely that they shall be able to cry out—“Here you should supply this—that, you evidently pass over, and I’ll help you from my own stock”? It is all teaching, on the contrary, and the people hate to be taught.
—Robert Browning to John Ruskin, 10 December 1855I.
Reading Christabel makes you stupid.
This, at least, is among the central charges that William Hazlitt’s unsigned Examiner review levels against Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep (1816). Coleridge’s “dim, obscure, and visionary” poem, Hazlitt writes, “is more like a dream than a reality. The mind, in reading it, is spell-bound. . . . The faculties are thrown into a state of metaphysical suspense and theoretical imbecility” (Jackson 207). This is not a complaint that the poem is merely confusing: the language of “metaphysical suspense” and “theoretical imbecility” discloses an anxiety about something more profoundly disruptive, a stupidity that resists clarification or elucidation. Hazlitt’s language is thus an excessive response to a text to which, by his own implication, there is no possible response; it is nearly impossible to speak intelligently about stupidity. Most dangerously, the mind whose operations have been suspended in this way does not even know that it has been seduced into error—much less how to go about correcting it.
There are, of course, a set of lesser objections in this infamous review that have to do with what Hazlitt perceived as intentional obfuscation and unnecessary confusion on Coleridge’s part. But these remain, for the most part, restricted and containable: confusion can be cleared up; ignorance can be educated. A correct answer may be supplied in the place of an inadequate one. Stupidity, by contrast, is not reducible to being confused or not-knowing. “[S]tupidity,” as Avital Ronell argues, “does not allow itself to be opposed to knowledge in any simple way, nor is it the other of thought. It does not stand in the way of wisdom, for the disguise of the wise is to avow unknowing. . . . [T]he question of stupidity is not satisfied with the discovery of the negative limit of knowledge; it consists, rather, in the absence of a relation to knowing” (5). The difference between stupidity and more limited categories of experience such as confusion and ignorance consists in stupidity’s missed connection with knowing. At the same time, even under the conditions of this absent relation, stupidity remains on the scene, cultivating the proximity that allows it to resist efforts to bring it under control and occasionally masquerading as intelligence itself. This structure is already being worked out in Hazlitt’s excessive response to Christabel: “metaphysical suspense” and “theoretical imbecility” have a tendency to overwhelm efforts to establish the critical distance necessary to distinguish a stupid poem from a stupid reader.
Christabel, of course, is not a stupid poem, nor was Hazlitt a stupid reader. But although Christabel does not pose any great difficulties in terms of its language, versification, or theme, it does tend to confront its readers with the experience of stupidity. Its narration is characterized by gaps and hesitations, breaking off abruptly just as it seems really to be getting started. Close reading seems to invite the experience of stupidity instead of keeping it a bay: the more carefully we read and think about the poem the more stupid we are likely to feel. Quite simply, our faculties are liable to be thrown into a state of “theoretical imbecility”; we do risk the paralysis of “metaphysical suspense.” Uncritical, even stupid readers (we could, at least, surmise) would find themselves more comfortable with seeming excesses like the mindless chatter of the poem’s opening sections’ catechism of trivia: “Is the night chilly and dark? / The night is chilly, but not dark” (l. 14-15). Though not every reader of Christabel has articulated the problem of the poem in terms of stupidity, modern scholarship does suggest an uneasy relationship among poetic ambiguity, confusion, and outright stupidity. Susan Eilenberg, for instance, locates the “difficulty of speaking properly in or about ‘Christabel’” in the poem’s broad undermining of identity: “There can be no language proper to an undefinable subject” (89). Anya Taylor notes how the poem both attracts and repels readers through “lulling, almost lobotomized repetitions” and “metrical hesitations and forward rushes” that threaten, in her view, to break down readers’ powers of understanding—or simply leave them “transfixed” like the Wedding Guest under the eye of the Ancient Mariner (“Phantom Soul” 707). More directly, Karen Swann writes that Christabel initially “frightened its reviewers, not because it was such a successful tale of terror, but because they couldn’t decide what sort of tale it was” (“Enigma of Form” 160). The poem, in Swann’s rendering, overwhelms its readers with so many interpretive choices that interpretation itself becomes impossible. The madness, stupidity, and speechlessness that afflict Christabel’s eponymous heroine “redound on the reader, who continually feels mad or just stupid, unable to ‘tell’ how to characterize the verse at any given point” (“Enigma of Form” 162).
Envisioning a reader unable to “tell,” Swann’s comment allows us to speculate that the best idea of what it’s like to read Christabel comes from Christabel herself. The first encounter between her and Geraldine is marked by Christabel’s confusion at the moan that emanates from behind that tree: “what it is, she cannot tell,—” (42). Geraldine’s body is, of course, described only as “A sight to dream of, not to tell!” (248), the line that Hazlitt considered an obscene gesture masquerading as “an exquisite refinement in efficiency” (Jackson 206) and one that has generated nearly two centuries of critical debate. By the end of the poem, Christabel has been emptied of her selfhood and is left stuttering, drawing a blank, unable to maintain her presence of mind: “what she knew she could not tell, / O’er master’d by the mighty spell” (607-8). As these examples remind us, not being able to “tell” is only partially a matter of not being able to speak. It also marks a more general breakdown of the powers of classification and discrimination, including the ability to “tell” the difference between truth and fiction. Moreover, each of these instances of not being able to “tell” can also be read as occasions of and for stupidity, as tests that Christabel, the narrator, and the reader, are unable to pass.
Given these conditions, the smart thing to do may be to run away, following the trajectory mapped out by Percy Bysshe Shelley. According to Doctor Polidori’s anecdote, the “sight to dream of, not to tell” caused Shelley to hallucinate women with eyes for nipples and run screaming from the room where Byron was reading the poem aloud. Yet, despite all its associations with stupidity and even fear, Christabel is also regarded as an eminently “teachable” poem. In her contribution to the 1991 anthology Approaches to Teaching Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose, Taylor lists the “accessibility of the narratives and of their poetic techniques; the mysterious cruxes in the poems that provoke discussions about life’s questions; [and] the complexity of crime, suffering, guilt, and family tension in the poems” (“Teaching Ancient Mariner and Christabel” 128) among the qualities that make Christabel and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner popular with her students. Swann, in the same volume, comments on the way that “[o]ur experience of genre . . . affects what signs we take to be significant. It also informs our capacity to interpret them. For merely to know that signs mean something is of course not to know what they mean” (123), and suggests that the poem may be used to focus students’ attention on the contingency of reading practices, particularly when they come to bear on the poem’s more difficult questions. Employing a strict set of learned reading practices can backfire, Swann implies, with a text like Christabel that “seems at least uneasily aligned with the genres it also invites us to reflect on” (124). Mary Favret also uses Christabel as an occasion for talking about gender and genre in the context of Romantic literature. Not all questions about the text are created equal, Favret observes, and recovering the importance of what we might otherwise dismiss as “stupid” questions exposes the text’s structuring of questioning itself to obscure some of Coleridge’s intertextual relationships with female prose writers in a Gothic tradition.
All three of these authors—and the others who contribute essays to Approaches—attempt to bring “metaphysical suspense” and “theoretical imbecility” under control by rewriting them in terms of confusion and incomprehension. The questions that Christabel raises may not be fully resolved, but the ability to raise questions at all suggests that the initially overwhelming feeling of stupidity has given way to a “teachable moment,” in which we have the opportunity to learn something. In other words, if we cannot clarify Geraldine’s identity or Christabel’s culpability, we can at least comprehend something about how and why the text makes those kinds of determinations impossible. To say, as Favret does, that our “confusion has been written into the poem” (114) means that our stupidity is no longer entirely our fault. Much like the suspenseful narratives of the later nineteenth century, Christabel can invite us to reflect on our own reading practices and perhaps learn how to improve them. Caroline Levine argues that Victorian realist “suspense fiction was all about teaching readers to suspend judgment” (2)—a claim that resembles the one that the contributors to Approaches make about Christabel. Similar too is Levine’s description of how the “pleasures of suspenseful narrative” lie in the surrender of expectations and certainties, giving the self to “the experience of anxiety, the uneasy sense that the world may not conform to predictable outcomes. To have an experience of suspenseful uncertainty is to acknowledge that there is more than one credible ending to the narrative, more than one potentially plausible ending to the mystery” (47). But the “pleasures” of the suspense in Levine’s archetypal narrative of discovery depend on the text itself achieving a kind of closure that never happens in Christabel. For this reason, approaches to Christabel that emphasize how the poem can better help us understand, say, Romantic literature or gender politics—as obviously crucial as they are in nearly every way—do not fully address Hazlitt’s “metaphysical suspense” and “theoretical imbecility,” this unrestricted, excessive stupidity that resists recovery into an epistemologically- or pedagogically-productive narrative.
But Christabel is not written to make us feel stupid just for the sake of feeling stupid. It is my contention that we should see the text and experience its relation to stupidity within the framework of what Coleridge, in the famous passage from chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria, names “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith” (BL 2.6). Coleridge, as is well known, coins this phrase to describe a reading practice based on the acceptance of incredible elements in his supernatural poetry—specifically, Christabel and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Broadly speaking, suspension of disbelief describes the process through which authentic affect can be experienced through an explicitly fictional text. Elements that are clearly outlandish, Gothic, or supernatural require only that we assent to them as fictions. Once we have accepted that premise and agree not to be distracted by its conflict with what we know as reality, we may more clearly recognize the “human interest and semblance of truth” (BL 2.6) that remains as the familiar among the unfamiliar. However, the willing suspension of disbelief is not simply “the happy relinquishment of the reality principle” (Swann, “Wandering Mother” 157-58) that allows us to enjoy and perhaps learn from fantastic and otherwise fictional scenarios. While suspension shares with narrative suspense a respect for the unexpected, it ultimately breaks with teleological inevitability so that it can no longer be recovered in an epistemologically-productive narrative. Holding back the movements of judgment and doubt, the willing suspension of disbelief is equally a giving-over of the self without limit or expectation to an experience of possibility—whether of stupidity or the sublime.
The feeling of the sublime, for Coleridge, consists in the “Suspension of our Comparing Power” (Shorter Works 1.597). This suspension of our powers of comparison is analogous to the inability to “tell” that is so pervasive in Christabel, and following Coleridge’s use of suspension, I locate the occasion of the sublime in the many moments in Christabel in which “telling” is disrupted. These moments of suspension may be read as figures for the disruption of cognition (and, indeed, the stupidity) associated with sublime feeling, particularly as Coleridge found it described in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). “That is sublime,” Kant writes, “in comparison with which everything else is small” (105). Included in that “everything else” are our own mental powers, however considerable they are in other contexts. “[C]ontrapurposive for our power of judgment, incommensurate with our power of exhibition, and as it were violent to our imagination” (Kant 99), the sublime can be said to make us stupid—irredeemably, irretrievably so. Everyone becomes dumbstruck when confronted with the sublime (provided, of course, that they are “smart” enough to recognize the moment for what it is). That sublime feeling (if all goes well) ultimately expands our imagination rather than grinding it into dust is a testament to the power of reason, lifting us beyond ourselves, so that the “negative pleasure” of the Kantian sublime arises from “the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger” (98).
I read Kant’s “momentary inhibition” as a kind of suspension writ large, one that authorizes a broad reconsideration of the willing suspension of disbelief. By approaching the willing suspension of disbelief from the direction of the sublime (rather than, say, the Gothic), we “learn” a receptive posture poised between knowing and not knowing, a suspension that accepts the risk of stupidity as a condition of sublime possibility. Suspension, moreover, anticipates the practice of reparative reading as developed in the late work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Where the “hermeneutics of suspicion” seeks to anticipate and avoid being surprised, reparative reading, like the willing suspension of disbelief, remains open to the unexpected and the contingent. Sedgwick writes,
to read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. (146)
To “experience surprise” suggests a process of learning that is not exhausted in attaining a single objective; it is rather ongoing and potentially inexhaustible, a process that is perpetually realized but never mastered, befitting the “lessons” of poetry and the sublime.
Writing of a scene in Rousseau’s Confessions, Ronell observes that “for the sensitive soul, nearly every social encounter involves a secret testing system on which one is bound to do poorly,” and goes on to wonder “whether it is dumber . . . to have failed the test or not to have known in the first place that he was being tested” (47). Heading towards the oak tree with the intention to “pray / For the weal of her lover that’s far away” (31-2), the restless Christabel resembles nothing so much as a student about to be presented with a pop quiz on material that she did not know was going to be on the test. “What it is, she cannot tell”: in this initial iteration, not being able to “tell” (in both the narrative and comparative senses) is marked by the presence of mute bodily markers of surprise that reflect something like “the momentary inhibition of the vital forces” (Kant 98). Christabel “leaps up suddenly” (39) at the sound from behind the oak. In the several lines before she is able to collect herself enough to be able to speak again, the narrator intervenes to attempt to “hush” her “beating heart” (55). The unexpected appearance of the “damsel bright / Drest in a silken robe of white” (60-1) serves as a prelude to the more important examination, wherein Christabel must decide on the appropriate response to Geraldine’s story. Geraldine avows her own confusion as she attempts to narrate her story of kidnapping (and perhaps worse). That she has (perhaps) “lain in fits” (90) suggests a more extreme version of Christabel’s shock. About her captors, Geraldine can only say “Whither they went, I cannot tell—” (97), speaking the terms of Christabel’s mute surprise.
The gaps in Geraldine’s story have typically rendered her a figure of suspicion. The seemingly inadvertent self-dividing expressed in a line like “Me, even me, a maid forlorn” (80) comes to foreshadow her ultimate duplicity—and not even a particularly clever duplicity at that. Responding with sympathy and openheartedness, Christabel puts her faith in the authenticity of Geraldine’s tale and invites this mysterious figure into her home. In so doing, she, at least in the eyes of the vast majority of the poem’s readers, fails the most basic test presented to any reader of fantastic literature—telling the difference between fiction and fact. The coding of this action as a failure is largely a matter of genre and of a failure to recognize generic conventions as conventions. Swann observes that “[f]or Christabel, but also, for any absorbed reader of circulating library romances, Geraldine’s story of abduction works as a seduction—Christabel recognizes Geraldine as a certain type of heroine and embraces her” (“Wandering Mother” 152). In a certain sense, Christabel fails the test presented by Geraldine because she read the wrong assignment. Walter Jackson Bate puts it more simply: Geraldine’s story “would convince no one except an innocent and rather obtuse maid” (68). Christabel suffers because she reads like a girl.
I do not wish to revisit the longstanding debates on the generic status of Christabel insofar as they deal with the question of whether the poem is a Gothic text, a parody thereof, or something more complicated. What is more important for my purposes is Swann’s description of how Coleridge’s deployment of the most excessive tropes of “Gothic machinery” (“Wandering Mother” 159-60) functions as a commentary on the production of literary convention itself, destabilizes its readers’ presuppositions about genre, and teaches them to be more careful about making assumptions. Although, as Swann notes in her Approaches essay, the only person seriously to advance the idea that Geraldine might be telling the truth is Christabel herself, the indeterminacy of the poem leaves more room for speculation than it does grounds for a better-informed interpretation. About the only thing on which readers do agree is that Christabel’s interpretation of Geraldine is wrong. Foregrounding the generic constructedness of Christabel’s perceived stupidity or naiveté has a somewhat troubling implication for the poem’s more “educated” readers as well. With more interpretive practices at our disposal, we bear an even greater risk of looking stupid by choosing the wrong one or by adhering too closely to a single seemingly correct approach. This is precisely the kind of frustrating situation liable to provoke the “hysterical” reactions that Swann and others have associated with Christabel’s critics.
More broadly, Christabel forces us to face the possibility that education is no guarantee against stupidity. Although we might at least provisionally accept Ronell’s claim about the absence of a relationship between stupidity and knowledge, we must also recognize that stupidity maintains a troubled intimacy with education, undermining the latter’s claims to epistemological certainty. At times, stupidity declares that it has nothing more to learn, drowning out the teacher’s voice with a kind of “monumental arrogance” (Ronell 13). In many other cases, it operates more stealthily, running interference against pedagogical aims or simply consisting in pointing out their excesses. It is entirely possible, for instance, to misinterpret a pedagogical scene as something else, being too stupid to realize that you are supposed to be learning something. But you can also become so focused on your presence in the pedagogical scene that you fail to absorb a more important lesson. Indeed, the question of conscious learning is itself open to debate. Sedgwick asks, “Is it true that we can learn only when we are aware of being taught?” (153). “Intelligence itself,” Ronell writes, “depends on a withholding pattern that in some cases matches the irremediable reluctance of the stupid. For its part, stupidity can body-snatch intelligence, disguise itself, or, indeed, participate in the formation of certain types of intelligence with which it tends to be confused” (10). The body-snatching capabilities of stupidity mean that it is almost never an easy endeavor to establish whether learning is taking place or has taken place in an educational setting, or whether these scenes are merely generating armies of automata (or zombies), answering machines ready to spit out facts about which they “know” nothing.
Christabel, failing to be one thing or another, or even to define the terms among which it refuses to decide, makes it particularly difficult to distinguish a stupid poem from a stupid reading—or a stupid reader. Of course, only a “stupid” poem—that is, a poem not worth reading in the first place—gives away all of its meaning up front. But as most of us know from experience, it is possible to read a text carefully and according to all the best practices of close reading and still to produce a stupid interpretation. Hazlitt’s “metaphysical suspense” and “theoretical imbecility” suggest the workings of this persistent yet elusive strain of stupidity that cannot be counteracted by more careful reading practices, a better grasp of plot, or even an outright rejection of the text at hand. Criticizing Coleridge for a kind of willful indeterminacy, Hazlitt represents suspension as an affliction to be overcome or mastered rather than a potentially productive critical posture: “The fault of Mr. Coleridge is, that he comes to no conclusion. He is a man of that universality of genius, that his mind hangs suspended between poetry and prose, truth and falsehood, and an infinity of other things, and from an excess of capacity, he does little or nothing” (Jackson 205). Intelligence that over-runs its boundaries may become stupidity, just as, in Hazlitt’s description, Coleridge’s great abilities lead to a kind of paralysis whose results are indistinguishable from those of incapability.
The willing suspension of disbelief, this seemingly desirable and enjoyable forgetting of the restrictions imposed on us by reality, seems at first to have little in common with a presumably unwilling relinquishment of the critical faculties or with the cynical authorial posturing that Hazlitt attributes to Coleridge. Yet suspension of disbelief is frequently invoked, especially in popular usage, to acknowledge authorial and creative lapses that must be overlooked by generous readers, and to warn those readers not to become ensnared by lies, manipulation, and incompetence. Indeed, it is difficult to escape the possibility that the willing suspension of disbelief encourages a foolhardy holding back of one’s judgment at the moment when that judgment is most needed. There may seem to be a rather short distance from the reading practice Coleridge prescribes for supernatural poetry to the “forc’d unconscious sympathy” (597) that overtakes Christabel at the end of the poem.
Nevertheless, I believe we should be careful of either collapsing these two kinds of suspension or proposing an easy opposition that offers skepticism and paranoia as correctives to overly-accepting credulousness. Recent work by Michael Tomko provides a welcome corrective to tendencies to see the suspension of disbelief as passivity, consumption, or simple-minded acceptance taken to a delusional extreme, describing it rather as a “combination of active engagement and vulnerable receptivity [that] promises to provide not only a new perspective that comes from the other but also an experience otherwise unavailable” (244). Poetic faith, in Tomko’s reading, becomes an educational posture to the extent that it interrupts the rush to judgment and allows us to learn from others whose experience would otherwise be inaccessible to us. To this extent, Tomko’s understanding of poetic faith anticipates the pedagogical functions of narrative fiction that I mentioned earlier. Placing the phrase within the context of Coleridge’s extensive theological writings on faith and belief, Tomko rightly apprehends the dual structure of mental activity and vulnerability that is part of suspended disbelief. Yet, he observes that, curiously, this promise of aesthetic communication across political and ideological lines fails even within the Biographia itself. Tomko cites Coleridge’s dismissive review of Charles Maturin’s Bertram—reprinted in the penultimate chapter of the Biographia—as an exercise in “bad faith.” Coleridge disingenuously “attend[s] constantly to meta-level stagecraft”—precisely the unavoidable elements in a theatrical production that require the suspension of disbelief—“in an effort to disconnect readers from the play’s action” (247). The more generous critical work of poetic faith remains unrealized even within Coleridge’s own text.
Tomko’s conception of what Coleridge means by “poetic faith” is limited and provisional, always fully under the volitional control of the critic: “a reader never surrenders his or her power of disbelief or dissent. This power is suspended, but not relinquished. It remains under the control of the will … . Although there is an initial investment in the work of the author and a willingness to listen that could lead to dialogue across political or sectarian barriers, disbelief can re-emerge at any time, shattering the illusion, debunking the poetic faith placed in an author, and launching a critique” (245-46). Tomko does not deny the potential pitfalls of suspended disbelief, but he does identify an active critical mind as a guardrail against epistemological embarrassment. Because he places so much emphasis on the saving intervention of the active critical mind, Tomko underplays some of the more radical possibilities of Coleridge’s term. Since Coleridge also considers the sublime to be a form of suspension, I suspect that he is talking about something more capacious and risky than what Tomko describes. A conception of poetic faith and suspended disbelief that would not simply be, as Tomko puts it, “wrecked upon the rocks of the romantic stage and fractured by Coleridge’s ambivalence concerning his past and political opinions” (243) must include and affirm the uncontrollable as well as the volitional.
Suspension, as I argue above, is constituted through the dual movement of holding together and giving over, and is an active posture of self-control that is also irreducibly a surrender of the will. Displaying a “willingness to attend to alterity” (Levine 14), suspension holds in abeyance what seems to be natural or inevitable: the rush to judgment, the machinations of law, the teleological progression of plot. In the case of the suspension of disbelief, the movement consists not merely in withholding but also in a deliberate giving-over that surrenders to the unforeseen and the unexpected, opening a space of possibility and uncertainty that is not always easily recovered by a narrative or other determinative process. The suspension of judgment, similarly, works to maintain two or more compelling yet mutually exclusive possibilities without determination. Yet, even as it resists temporal unfolding and discursive determination, suspension functions as a constitutive discontinuity, marking the experience of the present moment by interrupting it or shaping subjective consciousness by revealing something beyond it, something beyond our control or even our powers of anticipation. It is both liberating and potentially dangerous, unsettling seemingly secure modes of signification by a refusal to be one thing or the other: the negative tone of Hazlitt’s “metaphysical suspense” reminds us that suspension may have any number of undesirable consequences.
One of the qualities that suspension shares with the sublime is a potential to be constitutive and elevating through the spontaneous relation to something beyond ourselves, something beyond simple sensibility. This process is ongoing and not completed in the same sense that one may finish reading a book or memorize a set of rules. One of the most striking examples of this kind of experience in Coleridge’s poetic work comes in the representation of the infant Hartley’s first stirrings of consciousness in “The Nightingale”: “he beholds the moon, and hush’d at once / Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently” (102-3). While at first this moment does not seem to include the element of intentionality necessary fully to qualify as a willing suspension, we should read these lines as the infant’s first stirrings of that volitional consciousness—here marked by its absence or suspension. It is perhaps the first time the child finds himself capable of being affected by something beyond his body, and it functions as a kind of foundational educational moment that makes learning possible.
The sublime, for Kant, consists in a similar “expansion of the imagination” (105) beyond sensibility that allows for a transitory supersensible awareness of the power of reason. Contemplating scenes such as “shapeless mountain masses” or “the gloomy raging sea,” Kant writes, “the mind feels elevated in its own judgment of itself . . . and abandons itself to the imagination and to a reason that had come to be connected with it—though quite without a determinate purpose, and merely expanding it—and finds all the might of the imagination still inadequate to reason’s ideas” (113). What Kant identifies as the “pleasure” of the sublime is not, of course, a result of the feeling of our mental inadequacies as inadequacies, but arises instead from the experience of striving, of pushing ourselves beyond our capacities, of moving from humility (or humiliation) to respect for our own humanity as elevated over nature and the merely sensuous. Slavoj Žižek describes the Kantian sublime, rooted in an experience of “nature in its most chaotic, boundless, terrifying dimension,” as an experience of pure, absolute failure: “The Sublime . . . is the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unrepresentable” (203). What is revealed in the sublime moment can never be called “content,” nor can the form of this relationship be fixed into a skill that can be mastered and taught to others. Thus, too, the sublime remains “beyond all comparison” (Kant 105), even to other feelings that might be called sublime. Rather, it is a performative relationship, realized every time for the first time, unpredictably and uniquely.
What we can learn, at least according to Kant, is the posture of disinterestedness demanded by aesthetic judgments, wherein “what we want to know is not whether we or anyone cares, or so much as might care, about the thing’s existence, but rather how we judge it in our mere contemplation of it (intuition or reflection)” (Kant 45). While this disinterestedness is at best fragile in any situation involving the sublime or the beautiful, it is particularly difficult to maintain when it is a question of Kant’s dynamical sublime. We are not likely to be immediately afraid for our lives at the astonishing sight of a landscape that stretches infinitely past our view. We may well have that reaction to “threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky . . . volcanoes with all their destructive power” (Kant 120)—and rightly so, since these are forces that our human bodies could not possibly withstand. To make these situations available to the aesthetic judgment of sublimity, which requires disinterestedness even in the matter of one’s own life, Kant interposes a distance between the subject of the sublime feeling and these powerful natural forces:
Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind, and which gives us the courage [to believe] that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence. (120, emphasis added)
The possibility of Kant’s dynamical sublime depends on a simultaneous posture of knowing and not-knowing that can only be achieved through something like a willing suspension. Kant almost immediately goes on to insist that the feeling of pleasure produced by the dynamical sublime “loses nothing from the fact that we must find ourselves safe in order to feel this exciting liking, so that (as it might seem), since the danger is not genuine, the sublimity of our intellectual ability might also not be genuine” (121). The safe place is a kind of non-fictional fiction, a mental projection that ostensibly raises our soul’s “fortitude” beyond the cares of the body without really placing that body at risk. But this projection is nonetheless a kind of strategic misrecognition calculated to create, however narrowly, the conditions of this authentic experience. Thomas Weiskel observed more than thirty years ago that “the mind convinced of its own sublimity cannot in fact experience the sublime moment” (77). If, on the one hand, we cannot make of these mindless, overwhelming natural forces an object of present fear and still call them sublime, neither can we rest too firmly in the safety of our own position. To avoid becoming too secure, too complacent, we must somehow know and not know what we are experiencing. Or—to put it in less binary terms—we must cultivate a kind of awareness of our safety that does not turn into knowledge of the same. The possibility of the sublime experience lasts only as long as this willing suspension can be maintained. At the moment we feel safe enough, grounded enough to call the experience “sublime,” the suspension is broken. We return to the order of knowledge, language, and emotion recollected in tranquility.
Among the contributors to Approaches to Teaching Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose, Mary Favret most directly discusses the relevance of the willing suspension of disbelief to Christabel, though she makes it the central term in a project of strategic obstruction: “Coleridge’s push for ‘poetic faith,’ the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ . . . especially in Christabel, leaves readers scratching their heads in perplexity and submitting, gratefully or begrudgingly to the inscrutable genius of the poet” (110). Christabel is written, she claims, in a way that “draws our allegiance away from natural causality and toward unnatural explanation” (114). Certain kinds of questions about the text, she notes, become “stupid” by reflecting disbelief that has been insufficiently suspended in the face of the fictions that the poem creates in order to function. For Favret, willing suspension must be at least partially unlearned and overcome by “validating” those seemingly stupid questions that expose, for instance, how the poem makes female sexuality something of an unspeakable horror, even if it means shattering other illusions.
Perhaps the most notorious instance of this kind of authorial misdirection masquerading as a lesson in poetic faith is the narrator’s description of Geraldine, or, more accurately, his refusal to describe her body as it appears to Christabel in the young lady’s chamber. Perversely, the narrator directs the reader to look at Geraldine’s body—“Behold! her bosom and half her side” (246)—only to block our view: “A sight to dream of, not to tell!” (247). Hazlitt, who was familiar with the manuscript version of Christabel, had protested the published version’s omission of “a line which is absolutely necessary to the understanding of the whole story” (Jackson 206), because it had more clearly identified Geraldine as a witch. The interests of “propriety” would seem to be better served in this situation by a more explicit “telling”—that is, by a description specific enough to limit the number of constructions that could be put on Geraldine’s identity and, thus, on the poem as a whole. What Favret sees as limiting and obstructionist, Hazlitt finds too disturbingly ambiguous, too dangerously unlimited. Yet both of these responses seem implicitly to privilege the passage’s content (what Coleridge does or does not tell us) over the structure of the text’s refusal to “tell” at the key moment of Geraldine’s unveiling. This excessively articulated silence around Geraldine’s body returns the poem to the unrestricted economy associated with stupidity and the sublime, allowing readers to imagine a seemingly endless set of horrors, or, for that matter, utter banalities, to fill in the gap.
In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!
Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow
This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow;
But vainly thou warrest,
For this is alone in
Thy power to declare,
That in the dim forest
Thou heard’st a low moaning,
And found’st a bright lady, surpassingly fair:
And didst bring her home with thee in love and in charity,
To shield her and shelter her from the damp air. (255-66)
What occurs in these lines is not simply a prohibition on all speech, though it has often been read that way. The “spell” instantiates a division between knowing and speaking—a knowledge gap, so to speak, that is embedded within the poem’s form as well as its plot—and it is not merely a matter of insufficient knowledge but of an inappropriate kind of knowledge, that which cannot be communicated. It is also a kind of lesson, though one that is provocatively incommensurable to what we as readers have taken for the “reality” of the poem. What we learn about through this reductive retelling is largely the means by which reality and our knowledge thereof is performatively constructed through language. And the subsequent generations of readers who will struggle to establish just what, in fact, has happened in Christabel are, in Geraldine’s narration, offered a compellingly simple story. Gone are the chattering questions, the howling mastiff bitch, and Christabel’s beating heart. Where we had originally seen Geraldine in “distress” (71) and stumbling over her words “for weariness” (72), we now see a composed “bright lady” who does not speak at all: there is no longer anything to “tell.” This more elegant version of Christabel emphasizes Geraldine’s physical attractiveness over her uncanny apparition and represents Christabel as being motivated by charity more than confusion. Limiting Christabel’s “power to declare” to that which is seemingly straightforward (if inaccurate), the spell inaugurates a narrative that, in a sense, makes fewer demands on an audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. Indeed, it is almost as if Geraldine anticipates that Sir Leoline will call his daughter to account the next morning, and is trying to help Christabel cram for the examination by learning the most plausible script for the events of the night.
But this is not the only revision of the poem’s opening lines that takes place in Part 1. The narrator offers yet another interpretation in the Conclusion:
It was a lovely sight to see
The lady Christabel, when she
Was praying at the old oak tree.
[…] Her slender palms together prest,
Heaving sometimes on her breast;
Her face resign’d to bliss or bale—
Her face, oh call it fair not pale;
And both blue eyes more bright than clear,
Each about to have a tear. (267-69, 274-79)
Where Geraldine sought to erase the uncertainties and shock of the pair’s first meeting and to elide the difficulties of telling, the first lines of the narrator’s version erase Geraldine. That Christabel becomes a “lovely sight” suggests nothing so much as a sentimentalized portrait of conventional feminine piety. But even here, the calm of the scene is troubled by the image of the tears that are about to fall. In a certain sense, they foreshadow everything that is to come or that might come, even though the narrator in the following stanzas jumps from the “lovely sight” of Christabel in the woods to the disturbing image of her asleep in Geraldine’s arms—leaving the interactions between the two women in the gap between stanzas until the reader is abruptly returned to the present of the narrator’s outrage at “the worker of these harms, / That holds the maiden in her arms” (286-87). Christabel’s as-yet-unfallen tears recall the suspended sobs of Hartley Coleridge’s glimpse of the moon in “The Nightingale,” yet, perpetually about to fall, they also remind us that if we are not yet in the abyss, we may fall over the edge at any moment.
Part 1 of Christabel sets in motion a conflict between knowing and telling as a consequence of the suspension of the comparing powers. In Part 2, Christabel internalizes this conflict, which reinforces her inability to “tell.” The memory to which Christabel gradually awakens as she watches her father embrace Geraldine is “The vision of fear, the touch and pain!” (441)—not, in a strict sense, a vision at all, for fear, touch, and pain all maintain resistance to representation and communication. The narrator again enforces a distinction between what Christabel knows and what she tells:
She shrunk and shudder’d, and saw again
(Ah, woe is me! Was it for thee,
Thou gentle maid! such sights to see?) (442-44)
While we may be expected to understand that the sense memory of “that bosom old” (445) and “that bosom cold” (446) causes Christabel’s first involuntary physical reaction—the “hissing sound” of the following line)—the parenthetical interruption and the stanza break after it visually reinforce the reader’s sense that the poem is reacting increasingly to something other than the events and images portrayed in Part 1. The rules seem to shift here, and we must once again respond by willing our suspension of disbelief, even at the risk of being taken in. Then again, it is also possible that the vision Christabel recalls with such terror is the previous night’s pedagogical scene.
In the absence of speech, the conflict between knowing and telling comes to be played out on Christabel’s body as a series of seemingly-disconnected and non-signifying postures. Geraldine
folded her arms across her chest,
And couch’d her head upon her breast,
And look’d askance at Christabel—— (567-59)
The long dash functions as a visual representation of the trajectory of Geraldine’s gaze; like a lightning bolt it enters Christabel’s body, suspending its vital mental and physical movements. The narrative stumbles under the weight of this gesture. The “look askance” produces, in the following lines, the distortion of Christabel’s features. Just as Geraldine’s inability to tell the whole truth makes her appear mad or simply dishonest, the distortions of Christabel’s body estrange her from the understanding she might otherwise expect from her father:
[A]ll her features were resign’d
To this sole image in her mind:
And passively did imitate
That look of dull and treacherous hate.
And thus she stood, in dizzy trance,
Still picturing that look askance,
With forc’d unconscious sympathy
Full before her father’s view—
As far as such a look could be,
In eyes so innocent and blue! (591-600)
The striking visual interchange between the two women has much more efficacy than the verbal one the night before, at least when it comes to making Christabel do what Geraldine wants. If she cannot force Christabel to recite her lessons, Geraldine has, in a certain sense, done something even more powerful. Christabel emblematizes an intelligence that, to again invoke Ronell’s metaphor, has been “body-snatched” by stupidity and made into a zombie—who, nonetheless, passes the test of reproducing Geraldine’s hateful look with flying colors.
Her facial features contorted into a fun house mirror-image of Geraldine’s, Christabel could also be said to resemble “the devotees of the circulating libraries” that Coleridge condemns in a note to chapter 3 of the Biographia Literaria, who, for lack of their own mental powers, passively consume the worst of someone else’s delusion:
the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole materiel and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of an hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. (48)
Christabel is an appropriate signifier of neither her own inwardness nor Geraldine’s. She becomes instead a subject trembling in a violent oscillation between two conflicting possibilities, unable to give reliable information about either. It is not the willing suspension of disbelief, since the gaze seems to annihilate whatever was there to be suspended. Even so, this moment should remain, I believe, at least somewhat undecidable, acknowledging the instability of the border between willing and unwilling suspension rather than a definitive transition from one to the other.
The undecidability of the status of Christabel’s suspension is authorized, I believe, by the poem’s emphasis on its transitory nature. The next stanza brings an intermittence to Christabel’s “trance” state, allowing her to collect what remains of her “common sense” and “definite purpose” so that she may plead:
“By my mother’s soul do I entreat
That thou this woman send away!”
She said; and more she could not say,
For what she knew, she could not tell,
O’er-master’d by the mighty spell. (604-8)
It is rather surprising that Christabel can say anything at all by this point, let alone that she can manage to address her father. Christabel’s persistent failure to “tell” what she knows again makes it nearly impossible even to ask the question of what “actually” happened or what Christabel “really” knows. The situation may, of course, be evidence of an ongoing obstructionist project on Coleridge’s part, just another opportunity for us to be duped in the name of literature. On the other hand, it allows us to pose a different set of questions about knowledge itself, following those that emerge from Sedgwick’s reparative positioning: “What does knowledge do—the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already has? How, in short, is knowledge performative, and how best does one move among its causes and effects?” (124).
In the midst of what seems to be a kind of subjective death of the title character, Christabel contains the possibility of alternative outcomes. Although the narrator credits the “spell” with the production of Christabel’s silence throughout Part 2 of the poem, it is significant that Christabel never actually affirms Geraldine’s version of events. It is the narrator who collapses the effects of the spell into Christabel’s speechlessness: “I ween, she had no power to tell / Aught else: so mighty was the spell” (461-62). Yet Geraldine told Christabel what to say; she did not prohibit speech entirely. It is easy enough to follow the narrator in dismissing this utterance entirely as something inconsequential, a cliché uttered from weakness of mind. But this is only one of many suppositions on the narrator’s part, and it underestimates Christabel’s act of resistance and the context of the utterance. Christabel’s physical response to the memory of the night before attracts the attention of Sir Leoline who, at least in this moment, responds with fatherly concern: “What ails then my beloved child?” (458). Rather than speaking Geraldine’s story, taking the easy way out offered by the inconsequential, limited tale laid out in the “spell,” Christabel looks beyond—beyond herself, beyond her text, beyond even the powers of her creator. “All will yet be well!” offers no certainty and, remaining cryptic and unreadable, refuses any immediate consolation that her father might have been willing or able to provide. But it is equally possible to see this line as an expression of hope: not a naïve or stupid hopefulness that denies the centrality of pain and risk, but the hope that Sedgwick describes as a “fracturing, even . . . traumatic thing to experience” that exists “among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates” (146).
What we get in Part 2 of Christabel is largely fractured and traumatic. The rejection of daughter by father, the abandonment of Christabel in favor of Geraldine, is not only a poignant scene from a Gothic family drama, but also, in a more formal sense, a reminder of what is risked in every experience of mental striving that lets go of its own powers of knowing: a loss of control that is not immediately recuperated in elevation and triumph. It is equally an exploration of the limits of authorial withholding. The reiterated “rage and pain” (626) and “pain and rage” (628) that attend Sir Leoline’s “confusion” (627) and resurface in the poem’s penultimate line foreshadow those responses to Christabel by perplexed and frustrated readers. They may find their own “safe place” to have been violated by this poem, which takes them to the edge of the abyss and then halts in “a state of suspended animation” (Poetry and Prose 161)— to borrow the term that Coleridge applies to his own poetic powers.
Kant tells us that the sublime “reveals in us . . . an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature” and thus “keeps the humanity in our person from being degraded” (120-21). Yet, the problem of “pain and rage” that is brought forward in Part 2 of Christabel also reminds us that the sublime arises from the experience of failure. Kant’s “safe place” is structured so as to place a limit on such pain, to ensure that it remains only a “mediation” and does not result in the kind of “crushing” experience that Taylor identifies when she writes of Coleridge’s attempt to feel “this crushing of a girl child from within as if it were his own” (“Phantom Soul” 722). However, because the sublime cannot take place if we are fully convinced that we are not in imminent danger, the strength of that safe place always remains to be tested. We always run the risk that the safe place will not be safe enough and that we may be crushed—and Christabel takes its readers to the very edge of this abyssal possibility. Yet the acceptance of this possibility is for Coleridge the condition of our being able to talk about the sublime, about hope, about suspension. To refuse the risk of the sublime is to refuse all possibility of surprises, good or bad, in favor of a paranoiac position that amounts to a kind of stupid, body-snatched existence—the “dizzy trance” of the induced suspension of common sense rather than the potentially-constitutive willing suspension of disbelief.
The possibility of a reparative reading of Christabel that allows for willing suspension and poetic faith are suggested in the moments of the text in which we see Christabel at prayer. These have not been extensively studied, but a fairly recent article by J. Robert Barth makes an intriguing case for doing so. Prayers, he writes, “spring from a desire to reach beyond oneself: to love and embrace the other—as Christabel longs for her lover, for her departed mother, even for Geraldine—and ultimately to reach beyond one’s own weakness to a transcendent meaning or reality” (81). The impossibility of ever achieving this transcendence, of ever disentangling good and evil, is reflected in a more limited sense by the impossibility of Coleridge finishing Christabel. I depart from Barth in his belief that “the underlying current of the poem is love and its movement is unity” (79); at the same time I affirm his view that prayer, even in its seeming impotence, offers a possibility for reading the poem that does not take the “pain and rage” as the necessary conclusion. Granted, in comparison to the Ancient Mariner’s spontaneous blessing of the sea creatures, Christabel’s prayers seem all but useless. The motif of prayer begins with Christabel’s first appearance in the poem: she is the one who “in the midnight wood will pray / For the weal of her lover that’s far away” (31-32). And, just before she entreats her father to send Geraldine away, Christabel “Paus’d awhile, and inly pray’d” (602). Swann uses these two images to suggest that the poem has simply returned to its beginning, offering nothing new (“Wandering Mother” 157). Yet, these are not the only two prayers in the poem, and the opening supplication that brings Christabel outside the castle serves as a conventionally-readable sign of piety in a way that the last prayer, which takes place indoors, cannot. Indeed, as we move further along in the poem, Christabel’s prayers are often difficult to read—if we notice them at all, for they seem to efface themselves as images in the process of representation.
To whom or to what is Christabel praying? What, finally, is she praying for? Are those prayers answered? Though “saints will aid if men will call: / For the blue sky bends over all” (318-19), Christabel’s prayers seem to fail spectacularly, at least if we assume that she is praying for immediate protection from Geraldine. Of course, Christabel does not “call” any more than she “tells;” her powers of invocation are weak, to say the least. Yet, the Apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Romans that “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:23). Prayer may seem to achieve the most when the animating intention of the supplicant is least articulated, and in some ways it functions as the speech act par excellence of a figure like Christabel. The emphasis on silent prayer works to contain the poem’s language and to suspend the consequences of words that will always be spoken too soon. Given the failures that attend Christabel’s reiterated supplications, we are also continually reminded of the impossibility of prayer—even as this impossibility provides the grounds of an absolute faith. Just as Kant’s sublime originates in the displeasure that comes from feeling our own inadequacies, recent phenomenological work on prayer has identified what Michael Andrews calls “the economy of violence that underlies every act of prayer qua act of consciousness” (196). “To pray,” Andrews writes, “means always to pray to God, to pray with the passion of the infinite, to pray for the possibility of givenness without condition, to pray for the impossible” (196). It is through prayer, moreover, that Coleridge stages the sublime as a matter of poetic faith, a leap into the abyss regardless of danger and against all certainty. To show clear answers to Christabel’s prayers would bring them back into circulation within a restricted economy of representation that prayer itself does not allow. Indeed, any kind of conventional “ending” to the poem would render the suspension of disbelief—and, thus, faith itself—unnecessary, reducing it to a matter of the chattering questions with which the poem began. However, since the narrative is suspended rather than ended, these prayers cannot be determined as unanswered, either—this, too, would be an inadequate, not to mention emotionally and theologically intolerable, ending that forecloses any possibility of hope and denies the potentially performative force of Christabel’s attempt at benediction, “All will yet be well!”
Had Coleridge taken Christabel to a less ambiguous conclusion such as the one envisioned in the plan he related to James Gillman, then it would perhaps be justifiable to classify the poem as a Gothic text made legible by the Gothic’s generic code. However, Coleridge left Christabel in that state of “suspended animation” by asserting and reasserting an intention to “finish” the poem throughout the rest of his life—intentions that he never expressed, for example, in regard to other “fragments” such as “Kubla Khan.” Regardless of whether Coleridge actually intended to “finish” Christabel—or whether such a completion was even within his power—his insistence in the preface and elsewhere on his intention to finish the poem raises the possibility that he has indeed disseminated less than he has created. Anyone else who attempts to say anything about the poem in the interval runs the risk of looking stupid at some future time when the author reveals the fullness of his plan.
Coleridge’s conception of willing suspension and poetic faith is central to his ability to affirm the sublime as it operates in Christabel. More importantly, though, by stopping on the threshold of a fully-realized sublime experience, Christabel goes as far as it can to guard the possibility of the sublime as a wholly spontaneous event, even if some experiences, particularly in the natural world, seem better-positioned to trigger it. The sublime is a test of faith precisely because it is likely not to take place, at least not according to our schedule or expectations. It may take us by surprise or it may disappoint us. Willing suspension goes beyond simply the holding back of our disbelief under the influence of supernatural illusion. Instead, the text holds the possibility of the sublime while giving itself over to the potential for being misread, sharing the risk of stupidity with its readers. In Christabel, Coleridge attempts to maintain the sublime in its contradictions and to apprehend it without representing it—in short, to speak what it “cannot tell,” respecting the unknown as unknown.
To experience the sublime, we must be convinced that we are safe and yet be able to forget that knowledge at the moment it becomes most important. Thus, although the willing suspension of disbelief, particularly in its popular usage, may certainly denote an experience of pleasurable abandonment to an artistic illusion, it cannot be understood simply in terms of escapism or entertainment. Only a willing suspension—a deliberate giving over of the self and of cognition, a decision taken at the moment when we could still choose to do otherwise—can cultivate the mental attunement that allows the subject to both know and not know that he is safe. Both the dynamical sublime and Coleridge’s poetic faith make use of an imagined experience to produce genuine affect; at the same time, of course, the failure of imagination remains internal to the experience itself. The call for poetic faith and the suspension of disbelief functions as a reminder that the sublime must remain heterogeneous to all systems of regularity and representation, that it is never guaranteed to take place, and that it is essentially spontaneous and surprising.
The sublime, as it is staged in and through Christabel, exceeds all boundaries and reveals itself only as impossibility—the perpetual suspension, the deferral of certainty on which all other feelings and conclusions are based. It resists the domestication necessary fully to secure a place of safety and leaves its subject open instead to experiences that come much closer to trauma than Kant allows. Christabel thus functions as a complementary, if seemingly oppositional, narrative to the Kantian sublime, and as a site where Coleridge questions certain foundations of his spiritual and philosophical projects. He faces the darkest of his very real spiritual doubts—including the possibility that his efforts are in vain, and that the sublime experience can provide at best an unstable foundation for religious belief—and these are no small matters for him in 1816. If Christabel continues to unsettle and disturb its readers—and, indeed, occasionally to make us feel stupid—that power comes not from any strictly psychological or thematic concerns, but from the refusal to rest on the guarantees of reason and the supersensible against the abyss at its center and its willingness to attempt to speak—even momentarily—from a place of vertigo and danger rather than of safety and elevation.
In a way, then, Hazlitt was right all along to have described the feeling of reading Christabel in terms of suspension and even imbecility. The pedagogy of the sublime dictates that what is worth teaching is that which is beyond teaching. Such teaching must necessarily comprehend an experience of stupidity, one that goes beyond confusion and ignorance or even the knowledge of what we do not know. We must learn our own smallness in the face of absolute magnitude, our own vulnerability to overwhelming force, our own inability to “tell.” And then, somehow, we must also live through that revelation and survive our smallness, emerging transformed and expanded in ways that still remain somewhat beyond our powers to tell.