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Reinventing Allegory

by Theresa M. Kelley

Chapter 5: Romantic Ambivalences I

  The rest of Coleridge's long note adduces two intervening historical examples of how modern philosophers have used the term idea. The first is from Locke's Essay, which equates it with phantasm, among other terms; the second is from Hume's Treatise, where ideas are presented as equivalent to the mind's "faint images of its most violent and forceful impressions" (BL i:98n.). Coleridge categorically insists that these alignments between idea and phantasm or image mistake the universal, Platonic idea he wishes to defend. Yet in the next paragraph of the main text, he lets phantasia return, this time with a distinctly philosophical cachet. Now he explains that for the Spanish philosopher Juan Luis Vives, a disciple of Erasmus, "Phantasia ... express[es] the mental power of comprehension, or the active function of the mind; and imaginatio the receptivity (vis receptiva) of impressions, or ... the passive perception" (BL 1:99).

  These several returns of phantasia in the Biographia Literaria look like a consciously willed return of the repressed. For what returns in Taylor's anecdote about the "phantastic deportment" of a woman in the grip of profound religious faith is an allegorical vision of the world and its things. By way of this narrative, Coleridge offers a distinction between imagination and phantasia that contradicts his own in the preceding chapter, where it is presented as an example of the salutary consequences of desynonymization. Finally, the long-deferred chapter on the imagination corrects this half-correction by making phantasia unequivocally a lesser and distinct operation of the mind.

  To do this, he begins with a passage from Paradise Lost where fancy is subordinated to a higher power of mind that Milton identifies as a reason "more spirituous and pure" than earthly, material things. Not incidentally, this reason looks very much like Kantian pure reason, a temporary place-holder in Coleridge's philosophical approach to the transcendent, esemplastic imagination. A second epigraph, taken from Leibniz, and presented in translation, excepts "the purely mathematical and what is subject to fancy [phantasiae]" from the category of material things whose existence cannot be understood unless we appeal to a higher, Platonic "formal principle" (BL 1:295). The special status Leibniz gives to fancy implies that it, like pure mathematics, is always already apart from the material world such that it has some unspecified relation to the higher principle that is another temporary place-holder in Coleridge's narrative for the imagination.

  The value Leibniz assigns to fancy/phantasia disappears in the account of imagination and fancy Coleridge offers abruptly and without commentary as the conclusion of his chapter. Even here, however, at the culmination of the long, highly interested disquisition on the history of philosophy that has occupied thirteen chapters, phantasia and allegorical figures remain oddly necessary figures of the revolution in philosophy Coleridge hopes to effect. At the point in the chapter where asterisks mark a sudden halt in the argument thus far, he claims to have stopped writing after receiving a letter of advice from a solicitous friend and fellow-reader of the work this far. The "friend" is, as Coleridge's earlier journal of the same title makes clear, Coleridge himself. Reading the author's history of philosophy and consequent definition of the imagination thus far is, the letter-writing "friend" reports, like finding oneself: 
alone, in one of our largest Gothic cathedrals in a gusty moonlight night of autumn. "Now in glimmer, and now in gloom"; often in palpable darkness not without a chilly sensation of terror; then suddenly emerging into broad yet visionary lights with coloured shadows, of fantastic shapes yet all decked with holy insignia and mystic symbols; and ever and anon coming out full upon pictures and stone-work images of great men, with whose names I was familiar, but which looked upon me with countenances and an expression, the most dissimilar to all I had been in the habit of connecting with those names. Those whom I had been taught to venerate as almost super-human in magnitude of intellect, I found perched in little fret-work niches, as grotesque dwarfs; while the grotesques, in my hitherto belief, stood guarding the high altar with all the characters of Apotheosis. In short, what I had supposed substances were thinned away into shadows, while every where shadows were deepend into substances:
If substances may be call'd what shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either!
(BL 1:301) 

  In Coleridge's friendly letter of advice to himself, "fantastic shapes" make a stunning case for the imaginative displacement of static images (and reputations) by a new order. Under its dispensation, a gothic phantasmagoria makes the great grotesquely small and the grotesquely small great. This reshuffling is obviously staged to place Coleridge's reputation above that of the many philosophers whose arguments the Biographia Literaria canvasses. Moreover, like London phantasmagorias and like those magic-lantern shows that also depended on the illusion of great size or sudden shifts in apparent size, Coleridge's gothic horror picture-show tries, avant la lettre and with this letter, to persuade readers of the truth of an argument concerning the imagination that they will never see, an argument for which the concluding paragraphs on imagination and fancy are an emblematic, rebus-like text designed to be understood only by those prepared to grasp its meaning. The Miltonic tag the "friend" uses to close this section of the letter tacitly compares the movement of its "fantastic shapes" to the appearance of Sin and Death, whose theological lack of substance is paradoxically the only substance they have. The fact that Milton's Death is an allegorical shape who swells monstrously as he speaks conveys the hidden logic of Coleridge's citation.

  Coleridge himself tacitly refuses this logic, first in 1811, when he uses the same passage to discuss the sublimity of Milton's figure of Death, and again in the Biographia Literaria. For though his description of "fantastic shapes" that grow great or shrink evidently recalls Burke's defense of sublime obscurity ("A clear idea is ... a little idea"),[51] Coleridge refuses once more to identify shapes and figures that evoke the Miltonic sublime with allegorical ideas. By 1816, this silent antagonism erupts in his notes for public lectures, the "Statesman's Manual," and above all the Biographia Literaria, where allegory becomes the shadow-figure in opposition to the imagination.

  Yet in the Biographia and by way of Milton, Coleridge lets allegorical abstraction back in by another door to get the authoritative weight of these figures behind him as "characters of Apotheosis" capable of elevating his reputation just when it might otherwise be compromised by a long disquisition on the imagination. In all the registers conveyed by its Romantic attachment to metaphor and personification as "allegory in epitome," allegory is the implied and real agent for figures that swell in shape, assume greater powers, and seem to come alive. For although Coleridge does not describe these images moving, it is easy to imagine them doing so as they change places such that location and increasing size are the index of their value.

  In the concluding paragraphs of this chapter, Coleridge moves decisively to limit fancy to "fixities and definites" supplied by "the law of association," whose lifeless rigidity he had dispatched in earlier chapters and works. These limitations - which exceed the terms of the chapter 4 desynonymization of phantasia/fancy from imagination - look as though they are designed to countermand the ferment of "fantastic shapes" and Miltonic allusion in the "friend's" letter. To do this, Coleridge must also reframe his earlier claim that fancy's images endure in the mind (Lectures 1808-19 i:81). Now he suggests merely that such images are quasi-mechanically stored in the memory (BL 1:305).

  By positioning fancy, and allegory as its unacknowledged familiar, on the side of fixed, lifeless images, Coleridge isolates abstractions from individuals. In doing so, he keeps personhood and human feeling safe from the spectacle of a culture in which persons might easily become things, objects put on view off, as well as on, the stage. In the earlier lecture on Spenser, he makes this preference clear by insisting that Spenser's characters cease to be allegorical when they become individuals, with recognizably human feelings and dispositions. Thus, whereas Una is statue-like, hence unparticularized (and conveniently immobilized), Grief is allegorically at fault because he both grieves and pinches others' hearts with grief. At once "agent and patient," Spenser's Grief defies the separation between allegorical abstraction and pathos that Coleridge, like Neoclassical writers, seeks to preserve. Coming from Coleridge, whose definition of the imagination insists on its substantiation in the world, this old chestnut looks like special pleading. It is also contradicted by his earlier praise for Shakespeare's invention of female characters who embody "that mixture of the real & the ideal which belongs to woman." Of such a woman, Coleridge says, a man "could say 'Let that woman be my supporter in life; let her be the aid of pursuit and the reward of my success'" (Lectures 1808-19 i:298). The weight of marital alienation, desire, and self-pity that colors this remark conveys the pathos that Coleridge elsewhere holds back from allegory. Folded into allegorical persons and narratives, pathos marks a fleeting convergence between ideas and the world of real persons and actions.

  I conclude this chapter with Wordsworth's Prelude, book 7, description of "allegoric shapes" because it looks like a visual riddle whose solution demands re-thinking the difference between "men and moving things" (Prelude 7.158, p. 234). Like much of the book from which it is taken, these lines are studded with what Cynthia Chase has aptly named "rhetorical devices requiring the complicity of the reader."[52] Chief among them is the ekphrastic invitation to interpret the look of the words on the page as well as their meaning. In their verbal as well as visual registers, these lines let the distinction between animate human figures and inanimate ones cave in under closer scrutiny.

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