Coleridge Conversing: Between Soliloquy and Invocation

By Larkin, Peter | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Coleridge Conversing: Between Soliloquy and Invocation


Larkin, Peter, Wordsworth Circle


On the rhetorical or dialogic level are we not always dealing with an "I-thou" or "I-it" situation? And while the "thou" doesn't have to be the Thou of God, in many situations it is. Thus you get back to the desire for presence. You need the "thou" in order to be present, not just the "I" And there may be no thou that's more of a danger to self-presence than approaching God or speaking in His name. Geoffrey Hartman

"The stilly murmur of the distant sea / Tells us of silence" (11-12), Coleridge writes in "The Eolian Harp"; Coleridge isn't speaking of silence so much as evoking how it might be possible to speak to silence: it is only the speaking to, or invoking, which he can speak or tell of, even before, he can tell himself. Voice and silence are two salients in the conversation poems, and the gesture towards invocation is the connecting link, though a tentative one, not always able to be in play, sometimes beset by the more fraught play of the conversational itself. (1) About voice, the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty writes: "Among my movements, there are some that go nowhere ...: these are the facial movements, many gestures, and especially those strange movements of the throat and mouth that form the cry and the voice ... my voice is bound to the awesome birth of vociferation" (1968: 144). For Merleau-Ponty the bodily intimacy of one's own voice and the recognition of the other are always intertwined. "It is the error of the semantic philosophies," he claims, "to close up language as if it spoke only of itself: language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we never leave" (1968: 126). Departing from a similar insight, the contemporary French phenomenologist, Jean Louis Chretien, will say: "Speech takes risks because it is always the unheard-of that it wants to say. The silence within events is what we want to bring into speech" (Ark 2004: 13). Though silence as a dimension is the other of human speech as a whole, "acts of silence belong to human speech, moments of it, its modes and possibilities" (Ark 2004: 46). Such acts of silence are especially involved in what precedes or succeeds any attempt at invocation, even though, as acts, those silences participate in the texture of a broader conversational medium, but always by way of attempting some sort of "turn" within the discursive.

Charles Armstrong argues that "ultimately we must allow for something beyond conversation in the conversation poems." "We are asked to hear another address," he writes, "as it accompanies all inter-subjective communication; an address, prayer-like, of the unknown" (40). "If prayer is the absolute of conversation," he continues, "it is also the absolutely other of all conversation."(44). For me, this tension within the conversational hinges on Coleridge's attempts to evoke invocation, sounding out the horizons of the conversational, that is only possible it arises from the sounds of an ongoing dialogue which allows the poet to situate his own voice as a calling voice.

The phenomenology of call and response has been a preoccupation of Chretien's. His claim is that calling out is a response to a prior call from the divine other which transgresses one's self-sufficiency, so that the need to call out is itself a response to that prior call, even though the provenience of the divine call only becomes present within the embodied nature of ones answering (Call 2004: 30). Chretien then asks whether speaking is founded on the possibility of the call's corresponding to what calls it, and concludes that it is the inability to correspond which constitutes the condition of speaking (Call 2004: 6). This non-correspondence confirms for Chretien the necessarily choric character at any attempt at an answering cry (Call 2004: 32). An artwork, he argues, couldn't possess its gratuity except through its power of hailing vividly. Such a call serves to introduce a dialogue, a point at which any art lover must enter "into a conversation" (Call 2004: 36). …

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