Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction in Coleridge's Notebooks

Article excerpt

THE LAST THING COLERIDGE WANTED TO BE CALLED WAS AN EMPIRICIST, yet he devoted hours of his life to minute descriptions of optical illusions, hallucinations, and sensory oddities--"spectra," as he calls them. He records occurrences as ordinary as after-images of colors, (1) double vision (N 1863, 2632), double take (N 2212), and reflections taken as objects (N 1844, 2557, 3159), and as dramatic as flowers on the curtain that turn into faces (N 2082); "a spectrum, of a Pheasant's Tail, that altered thro' various degredations into round wrinkly shapes" (N 1681); a "spectrum" of his own thigh that registered touches as luminous white trails (N 1108); and the apparition of an acquaintance whom he knows not to be in the room. On the occasion of this last hallucination Coleridge recalls, "I once told a Lady, the reason why I did not believe in the existence of Ghosts &c was that I had seen too many of them myself" (N 2583).

The meticulousness of his notebook entries indicates that Coleridge thought of them as a kind of research. (2) It is because Coleridge isn't an empiricist that he is interested in evidently illusory appearances, gathering evidence against phenomenality by noting every time it misleads. He is concerned that phenomenality be recognized as merely phenomenal. "Often and often I have had similar Experiences," he explains, "and therefore resolved to write down the Particulars whenever [begin strikethrough]they[end strikethrough] any new instance should occur/as a weapon against Superstition" (N 2583). Still, Coleridge often sounds as though he doesn't quite know why he finds spectra so fascinating--for he is not only intrigued, but moved. He could fear and love for their own sake images that he knew to be unreal; complementarily, he could not always summon fear and love for things that he thought real, pressing, fearsome, and lovable. His exclamation about the stars and moon in "Dejection: An Ode"--"I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!"(3)--is exemplary of the state of mind in question, one long contemplated in the secondary literature and considered utterly characteristic of Coleridge.

Coleridge's generally pleasurable absorption in spectra stands in contrast to his terror of certain other, equally ephemeral experiences: obsessive thoughts and ideas, memories, and dreams as opposed to daydreams. Although they may seem similar--and what's worse, one may turn into the other--there is a strong distinction for Coleridge between spectra and these mental phenomena, which he calls "spectres." While spectra are collaborations with the sensorium, spectres usually seem to take place inside the self, lack visual distance, and are involuntary: they are unwelcome, intractable impositions. (4) If Coleridge is sometimes puzzled by his attraction to spectra, he is even more puzzled and frustrated by his fear of spectres he doesn't believe in. "Most men affected by belief of reality attached to the wild-weed spectres of infantine nervousness," he notes in a jotting of 1806, "but I affected by them simply, & of themselves" (N 2944).

Coleridge's concerns--his investment in phenomena in whose reality he doesn't believe and his perplexity about what he should feel toward them--are not his alone. Qualities of derealization and hyperlucidity have been treated as signatures of the aesthetic and of ideology. Recent analyses of ideology observe that ideology can captivate while leaving reality testing untouched: the magic of commodity fetishes and the senseless resilience of cultural prejudices affect many people simply and of themselves. (5) Various philosophical traditions struggle, as Coleridge does, to articulate relations to merely apparitional appearances. In the history of these struggles, I want to suggest, attitudes toward phenomenality recurrently depend on attitudes toward diffuse, low-level dissatisfaction. In classical skepticism, dissatisfaction is what we're supposed to feel toward mere phenomena: the principle of akatalepsia, the idea that appearance tells nothing about nonappearance, is often treated as though it meant that appearance told nothing worth knowing. …