A Cyclops in the Philosopher’s Cave: Leavis and the Coleridgean function in our time

Sat, 26/01/2013 - 20:35 -- hewardwilkinson

The Problem

Leavis has the capacity to select paradigmatic quotations with such precision and genius, that it is all too easy to see the writers quoted solely through his eyes. Since I have been connected with this post-Leavisian community, I have found that one of the great values which Leavis has for us, is precisely to give us a coherent epitomising framework to disagree with, and accordingly to revisit some of the great neglected figures whose further dimensions have got missed within that framework. But to do that one must pass through a phase of fighting him, and, of course, also, of fighting ones own compulsions to protect and justify his framework, so lucid and compelling as it appears to be, and, in great part, is.

But, in the process, one can also actually, as it were, stumble, with a starkly renewing vision, across great holographic minds, who have been invisibilised and shrunk to one dimension, like the Ancient Mariner’s ship, looming in the fog of that too brilliant framework, in the gaze of that so powerful but so single eye, and one finds oneself asking, why? The latest, and much less obvious, initially, to force himself upon my attention in this way, is indeed Coleridge. Why this  omission?      

So, approximating to the peremptory mode of statement for which Leavis was legendary – I begin by running two such statements past you:

1. We have much more to learn about the enactive understanding of human creativity from Coleridge than from Blake, - because Coleridge, far more than Blake, assimilates German insight, German philosophical and theological insight, in a way perhaps unique in our tradition, whilst not losing touch with poesis and enactment.

2. To be unaware, in modern criticism, of German Romantic understanding, - which addresses the nature of the human subject, and human personal identity, in a previously unexampled way, - is to be provincial. 

Next I take, in the light of this, another definitional step:

3. The Coleridgean function might initially be summarised as mutating the German Romantic insight into the creative subject into a uniquely English form – as an alternative to the highly successful, yet lop-sided and incomplete, tradition of empiricist utilitarianism. This insight is, for example, summarised by Barth (Protestant Theology in the 19th Century) writing about Novalis:

“To summarise, the concept of the ego, or of life, or, significantly, of poesy, and, therefore, the concept of the neutral superior centre is, with Novalis, to be defined as the endless becoming outward of endless inwardness, or  also as the endless becoming inward of endless outwardness, in the way that these processes both can and should and do in fact take place in the human act of living. It is a principle which is not only systematic, which does not only organise, but which is a creative principle which we have thereby come to know. All other principles are applications of this one creative principle, and are identical with it in substance. That is why it and it alone can stand neutral and superior as the centre of all of them.” (Barth, p.338)

Leavis has a profound, - but highly ambiguous, and as much concealed as revealed, - relation to this Coleridgean function. Both Coleridge, at the beginning of the tradition of the Coleridgean function, and Leavis, - especially the final period Leavis, inaugurated by the Richmond Lecture (1962), - served that function with profound creativity, between them they are the bookends of the tradition of that function. And they are its most important expressions, despite Arnold, Newman, Pusey, Carlyle, and TS Eliot.

But each is also a special, though utterly different, - yet perhaps, on reflection, complementary, - kind of partial, and serious, yet not simple, failure. That failure, nevertheless, has entailed a general failure of the tradition, a failure of this uniquely English tradition, to be ever adequately robustly established, in the face of the successful and coherent alternative tradition of empiricist utilitarianism.  

What is this uniquely English form? I think it involves, beyond the central understanding of the person, a special particularism, miniaturism, inscape, individuation (thus Hopkins, Keats, Blake himself, JL Austin, Leavis himself), and also, with it, humour, or the possibilities of humour. One of Blake’s bête noires, Samuel Johnson, catches a potent reality here, also one implicitly caught by Byron, at the heart of the Dickens of Little Dorrit, and Hard Times, and of Conrad, too:

‘Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.’

Blake is indeed a major voice here, but Eliot has a point concerning his dislocation from an intellectual tradition – one Leavis implicitly concedes when he writes about his lack of a creative audience. Blake formulates the tag of ‘Minute Particulars’, which ostensibly undercuts any generalised metaphysic, but is itself a generalisation:

‘He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.’ (Blake)

Why the German tradition?

But, first, why the Germans? When Monty Python presented the famous and brilliant philosophers’ world cup sketch, still to be seen on YouTube 

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2F4hONEAkk], it was not an accident that the philosophers’ world cup final took place between Greece and Germany. From Leibniz onwards, ‘Germany’, which does not exist as a state till the 19th Century, gradually takes the philosophical, cultural-historical, and theological centre, - especially if we include Austria and German Switzerland.  

In what follows I draw from Karl Barth’s, previously mentioned, monumental but subtle synopsis, which is as much about philosophy and culture as it is about theology, and as much about the rise of Romanticism as it is about the nineteenth century. With Luther - teutonically enough! - inaugurating the first challenge to the Roman Church in the West which could not be pushed back, and with Protestantism’s decisive importance in the rise of capitalist, and nationalist movements, and the rise of scientific methodologies, there is an element of the inevitable. From Leibniz onwards, the challenge to the empiricist assumptions, which had been articulated by British thinkers, and which had driven the classical Enlightenment in substantial measure, has been mainly articulated by German creative minds. Romanticism, Rousseau aside, a big exception to be sure, was pre-dominantly a Germanic phenomenon. Think of: Leibniz, Wolff, Lessing, Hamann, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Holderlin, Schleiermacher, and later Schopenhauer, Heine, Burchardt, Nietzsche, Marx, Brentano, Husserl, Dilthey, Freud, Jung, Heidegger, Rilke, Buber, Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, and Wittgenstein[i]. I leave aside the massive philosophical significance of German music, and the cases of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner, in this connection. In saying this, I bracket the English Romantics, because their status and relation to that phenomenon is precisely my theme, as it becomes central to Leavis’s.    

Had it not been for Nazism, perhaps, the recognition that the German tradition was centrally important, which was accepted before the Great War, and even after it, might not have been marginalised as much as it was and has been. (Of course it was recognised in Scrutiny, and by Leavis’s own Kantian understanding in particular, but with qualifications I shall come to.) Because of the tradition of Classics, for Ryle, Austin and Strawson, and because of Wittgenstein’s debt to Plato, and his indirect debt to Aristotle via Schopenhauer, the recognition of the great Greeks in British analytic philosophy is all-pervasive, but as regards the great Germans, the recognition in the twentieth century even of the greatness of Kant was belated, and very partial, assimilating him to the empiricist or commonsense elements in British philosophy. The last major mainstream British philosopher who recognised the greatness of Hegel, - unless we count the minority 20th Century detour of McTaggart, Whitehead, Alexander, Collingwood, Findlay, and Polanyi - was FH Bradley, significant influence on TS Eliot. Husserl and Heidegger have only latterly been taken at all seriously. Their Jewish-French inheritor, or epigone, Derrida, is considered a charlatan.

Now, Leavis himself, in 1950, accepts the case for Coleridge as conduit to the Germans, for he approvingly quotes Mill as follows:

‘But the pecularity of the Germano-Coleridgean school is, that they saw beyond the immediate controversy, to the fundamental principles involved in all such controversies…. They thus produced, not a piece of party advocacy, but a philosophy of society, in the only form in which it is yet possible, that of a philosophy of history…’ (Coleridge, my italic)

Mill connects this not only with the Germans but with De Tocqueville, much admired by John Lukacs, the author of Historical Consciousness. But, whereas in the twentieth century trans-empirical philosophers of history  like Collingwood, Mr Lukacs, and EH Carr, are isolated figures, conflated by Popperians with historicism, the Utilitarian Mill could freely invoke historical consciousness qua historical consciousness, in a way he could assume would be understood. And Leavis goes on to say that there is:

‘a line running from Coleridge and the German historical critics through Thomas [Arnold] to Matthew Arnold, thus connecting the last, - as there is point in doing – with his father’s Broad Church liberalism.’

And he quotes GM Young as claiming that by 1850 Coleridgean organicism, through the influence of the Tractarians also, ‘had won’.  I suspect, rather, that all which could be managed was a precarious and temporary impasse between opposed forces.   

The Two Cases of Coleridge and Leavis

So why, for Leavis, do we find Coleridge displaced by Blake?

To the Leavis of Revaluation, Wordsworth, - Hazlitt’s "gaunt and Don-Quixote-like man", who might that remind us of? – is, as a poet, overwhelmingly more important than Coleridge, and important for the immanent communication of the poetry as poetry, and not for the (significantly misguided) Coleridgean philosophic aspiration. His equation of enactivity with an anti-philosophy thrust is familiar enough to us.

Moreover, even at that time, Leavis was using the essays which became Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, to communicate his sense of the philosophical-cultural background of the 19th Century novel and social developments, and we have an emblematic sense of that synoptic view in his Introduction to it. And he seemingly, without apparently or at least overtly, using it for a general cultural philosophical critique until a great deal later, endorses Mill’s differentiation of the two traditions, with their iconic figureheads of Bentham and Coleridge. But after 1962, articulating his own philosophic version of the contrast, it’s to Blake, Dickens, and Lawrence he turns.

To justapose these two great antagonistic spirits of Coleridge and Leavis, in ones consciousness, feels like putting water on a hotplate, so great is the discrepancy between their habits of mind. One can hardly not pick this up, from, for instance, Leavis’s note on Coleridge and Mont Blanc following his chapter on Shelley in Revaluation. With his terse epitomising gift of caricature in stunning form, there is a mocking tone in virtually everything Leavis says here – even The Ancient Mariner is included in the mockery!   

‘The charm that stays the morning star turns out to have no relation with religious terror or Hebraic moral awe. It is ‘like some sweet beguiling melody’ such as the Ancient Mariner heard in his happier moments….. His tremulous responsiveness is not, like Shelley’s, ardent, impetuous, eager, and energetic….. but passive and, as it were, convalescent. (He may be seen dropping a tear of contemplative ecstasy in the portrait by C.A. Leslie that is prefaced to the Oxford edition of the poems.)’

So, if Leavis believes Eliot can only contemplate human love with the aid of Dante (Clark Lectures, p. 141), one might riposte that Leavis himself can seemingly only recognise the greatness of Coleridge with the assistance of Mill.

Leavis essentially implicitly supports Hazlitt’s estimate of Coleridge:

‘What is his Friend itself but an enormous title-page; the longest and most tiresome prospectus that ever was written; and endless preface to an imaginary work; a table of contents that fills the whole volume; a huge bill of fare of all possible subjects, with not an idea to be had for love or money?’ (Essay on Coleridge)

‘Coleridge was a genius, but his writings cannot be said to be products of a disciplined mind. Mill’s pre-eminently are, and they have an intellectual distinction which is at the same time a distinction of character.’ (Mill, my italic)

It is entirely characteristic that Leavis should use the word ‘disciplined’! One might indulge modern gender cliché a little, and note Leavis’s bias towards a masculine kind of mind, such as Wordsworth’s, and that Coleridge – and the Coleridgean aspect of Keats brought to life by Middleton Murry in Keats and Shakespeare – are far too feminine to appeal to him. Leavis’s comment is highly reminiscent of what Leavis himself complains about in relation to commentary on Dickens. 

Coleridge did have a systematic, though not an orderly, mind. De Quincey urged that proper attention revealed a profound coherence in Coleridge’s apparent digressions. Because Coleridge himself is ignored in Leavis’s own ‘Coleridgean function’ final phase, we have the huge yawning chasm in Leavis’s own performance of it, which is partly about philosophy but is also about, in Leavis’s own word, character.

Leavis and Coleridge do share much. On the one hand, an acceptance of fundamental Enlightenment methodologies, for example in critical and exegetical scholarship, but also, on the other hand, both move beyond the radical secular and generalist bias, of the first, pre-Romantic, phase of the Enlightenment, - shared by authors as different as Hume and Dr Johnson, for instance, about the nature of imagination, - into a recognition of what one might call the sacral/sacred character of personal identity and process, and of an organicist enactive unitivity of language and personhood[ii].  

And much in Coleridge’s performance does indeed correspond to Hazlitt’s and Leavis’s indictments. What is in fact remarkable is that, despite his addictions and his well known defects of will, the great procrastinator actually achieved so much. His great failure is that he actually managed to publish so little of what he even wrote, let alone spoke, that conversational genius of which De Quincey wrote:

‘That point being settled, Coleridge, like some great river, the Orellana, or the St Lawrence, that, having been checked and fretted by rocks or thwarting islands, suddenly recovers its volume of waters and its mighty music, swept at once, as if returning to his natural business, into a continuous strain of eloquent dissertation, certainly the most novel, the most finely illustrated, and traversing the most spacious fields of thought, by transitions the most just and logical that it was possible to conceive.’  (Recollections of Lake Poets)   

Though a surprisingly large amount was published in the 19th Century, the greatest mass of his productivity remained hidden, especially the five huge volumes of the Notebooks, and the Philosophical Lectures of 1818/19, the harvest of Kathleen Coburn’s great life work, - seeded by John Livingstone Lowes [The Road to Xanadu], - from around 1928 onwards [ http://www.aidanbell.com/pdfs/coburn.pdf ]. Since the Notebooks, following the Philosophical Lectures, gradually evolve towards more and more systematic explicitness of thought, Volume 5 is naturally the most systematic – almost a systematic theology in paragraph form, a form like that of Philosophical Investigations. But it was hidden from the world until 2002, and Leavis died in 1978. First publication of the Philosophical Lectures was 1949, the Notebooks are: Vol 1, 1957, Vol 2, 1962, Vol 3, 1973, Vol 4, 1990, Vol 5, 2002. So this colossal hidden achievement would have been unlikely to have entered central consciousness for Leavis, especially in view of his general predilection for finished works.

Leavis writes (Clark Lectures, p. 106) that the Romantic era’s great contribution was a new sense of human responsibility. He now associates this with Blake:

‘….I have more and more settled down to the conviction that he stands for a new sense of human responsibility, and that this is the Romantic era’s permanent contribution.’

A few lines later, significantly, in virtue of the religious resonance, he adds:

‘The contrast of Blake to Bentham may serve to enforce the main point I have been trying to make. You could hardly attribute a religious spirit to the Benthamite inspiration. And the sense of human responsibility that Blake represents is what we desparately need, to supplement, correct, and guide – in sum, subdue to the service of life – a victorious, cock-a-hoop, and hardly questioned Benthamism.’

So, in relation to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, Blake now occupies precisely the positionality[iii] which Mill, previously implicitly endorsed by Leavis, attributed to Coleridge, as the Anti-Bentham.

Although there is the aspect of infantile innocence in Coleridge, which Leavis mocks, as against the masculine sinew he finds in Blake and Hopkins, there is also a profound intractable darkness in Coleridge, more intractable than Blake’s, mirrored also in De Quincey’s feeling for gothic atmospheric, more than merely atmosphere, which was common currency in the awareness of Coleridge in his own age. This darkness, in his own age, he was also able to surpass (The Ancient Mariner is its fullest authentic poetic expression, and most fully manifest in Notebooks Vol 5, but available in aeveral texts in his lifetime), towards an Anglican-Protestant Christian faith, which draws upon an extraordinarily subtle post-Romantic understanding of language psychology and symbolism, certainly as subtle as those of Hamann, Herder, Schleiermacher, prefiguring twentieth century hermeneutic understandings, including that of Leavis himself, and realising his own sense of the sacred with one of the profoundest fusions of Hebraism and Hellenism ever expressed.

Another quasi-Gothic writer, EA Poe, realises what ones sense is of the vast and tragic life work, the incompletely realised infinitude, of Coleridge, in another uncanny ‘mariner’s tale’, The Maelstrom. Here the narrator’s avoidance, by a shrewd device, of the abysmal descent into the Poseidon vortex of the Moskoe-Strom, symbolises life preserved by an unaccountable yet crushing grace, which Coleridge’s journey illustrates. Coleridge’s journey, massively untidy, sprawling, unwieldy, yet uncanny, as it is, connects with the entirety of European tradition in a way probably unique in the English speaking world, and amongst much else, it opens up a causeway of connection to the great continent of German Romantic insight, in a way which is somewhat overwhelming, but which could have given British or Anglo-centric thought a depth of philosophical connection and background which it has never managed to sustain, and which Leavis’s late work cries out for.  

Leavis switches the points on the junction, from Coleridge to Blake, from the untidy and sprawling to the sparse. Great as Blake is as a poet, and as a symbol, he is, once again, a symbol also of Leavis’s own miniaturisation and sparsification of the Coleridgean function, which is simply abandoned in its original form, in a way which happens more than once in Leavis’s development. Instead of the juxtaposition of Leavis/Blake with the unworthy litmus test of CP Snow’s utilitarian cliché, displacing the mighty correlation of Bentham and Coleridge, with which he began,    

this possible Leavis could have drawn upon Coleridge to assist him in articulating the philosophical implications of enactivity, thereby rendering the emperor less sparse, threadbare, angry, and Quixotic. But it is as if the actual Leavis could only fulfil the Coleridgean function by replacing Coleridge himself with Blake.   



Notes on discussion at Downing College Conference 2012

Questions about:

1. what about Leavis’s essay on IA Richards book Coleridge on Imagination?

Answer: its in Scrutiny and I didn’t have access to Scrutiny, so haven’t read that review.

Follow up question/discussion: I only heard unclearly but something like: Leavis would have thought that Coleridge’s philosophical system and over-simple distinction between the conceptual level and experience, whether fair or not, made him think that Coleridge had been a bad influence on Richards and formed a malign background to Leavis in Cambridge in the early days of Scrutiny.

It led on to a discussion of Leavis’s view of Eliot’s discussion of Coleridge in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. I argued that Leavis was bad at finding the what from the chaff in writings that were flaccid – and that Eliot had interesting things to say about someone who had been visited by the Muse and was thereafter haunted – that Leavis was poor in doing justice to any haunting, that Conrad’s Shadow Line was indebted to The Ancient Mariner (the questioner said Leavis did mention it in writing about the Shadow Line), and that Leavis himself, without recognising it, was haunted lifelong by his ambivalence about Eliot. I also commented that Leavis always had difficulty with anything Gothic or occult, that he had the same Enlightenment secular empiricist Bentamite unease that Freud expressed to Jung when he said to Jung that ‘the sexual theory of the neuroses is our only bulwark against the black tide of mud – of occultism’.    

2. A question about whether I could present a sample of the Notebooks Vol 5. I said I only had it about a week and had read only 40 pages, but read out a passage concerning Coleridge’s discussion of how the early Greek philosophers, Heraclitus Pythagoras and Plato, as well as the Hebrew prophets and scribes, ‘Why not admit that the Holy Spirit was aidant?’ He then ends the passage with a prayer.

3. the passage had led one colleague to decide no way does he disagree with Leavis’s view of Coleridge and we had a vigorous dispute between what I considered his secularist view and my point that there was actually an argument here. He pointed out that Goethe and Nietzsche repudiated the closet theological element in Romanticism, and I riposted that, for instance, in the concept of the Eternal Return, especially the notes on it in The Will to Power, Nietzsche too is speaking as a theologian, and that he is not a simple atheist, and therefore that the argument between Coleridge and Bentham had now come right into the room! There was also discussion that Coleridge had learned nothing from Kant about the impossibility of transcendent knowledge claims, despite his time in Germany, which I contested by talking about Kant’s ambivalence about imagination and that Coleridge, as much as Blake and Leavis, had understood the creativity of perception, which is the core of Kant’s intuition!     

This was a vigorous ending to the discussion and created a good natured, ‘jousting’, energy!!

[i] The frequency with which these are also Jewish names, together with the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people by Germany, and Leavis’s marriage to a Jewess, who was then repudiated by her own family, and Pound’s definite, and Eliot’s putative, anti-semitism, and much else, presented a massive complex of problems, which, though entirely relevant, I simply had not time to address in this presentation.  

[ii] There may indeed be a very deep indirect connection indeed between Coleridge and Leavis, if we bear in mind, on the one hand, Henry James’s probable influence on Leavis’s somewhat elaborated prose style, and, on the other, that the influences on Henry James go back to Carlyle and Coleridge via their influence on the American Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Henry James, Sr., himself. Henry James the novelist himself wrote, in his notebook, of Coleridge:

“…of the general responsibility of rising to the height of accepting him for what he is, recognizing his rare, anomalous, magnificent, interesting, curious, tremendously suggestive character, vices and all, with all its imperfections on its head, and not be guilty of the pedantry, the stupidity, the want of imagination, of fighting him, deploring him in the details – failing to recognize that one must pay for him and that on the whole he is magnificently worth it.”

It turns out that Coleridge almost certainly did meet Blake, in 1826, through the mediation of the Swedenborgian Charles A Tulk, both Blake and Coleridge being deeply influenced by Swedenborg.  


Swedenborg is relevant to this, since he was a major influence on Henry James Sr., via a nineteenth century relative of mine, James John Garth Wilkinson, (after whom my half brother Garth was named) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_John_Garth_Wilkinson], who wrote a memoir of Blake, who was a Swedenborgian, after whom Henry James Sr. named his third son, - and since Leavis wrote an essay, in The Common Pursuit, on Quentin Anderson’s account of the hidden Swedenborgian influence on Henry James’s later novels. Leavis in this essay dilates on Coleridge’s maxim, BL Ch. XIV, ‘ that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise’, which Leavis slightly alters.

I venture, then, once again, as an intuition, unproven, - this all remains work in progress! - that, just as there remains a hidden haunting potency of Eliot’s influence on Leavis, which is signified by the elements of dogmatic parti pris and bad faith in The Living Principle, there is an even more hidden haunting of Leavis by Coleridge, which is not at all so obvious, but which comes out structurally in, and in the cross-connections of, Leavis’s relevant writings.             

As I said in my actual talk, I am much indebted to the stimulus of dialogue on matters closely related to all of this over the last few months with Colin Bower. 

[iii] I realised after the talk that I had twice substituted Leavis’s name for Coleridge, which suggests that, unconsciously, I was even more struck by the symmetry of the positionality than I realised until I gave the talk! So, actually, not Bentham and Coleridge, not Bentham and Blake, but actually Bentham and Leavis! So the compelling character of Leavis’s engagement with the task defined by Mill has obviously deeply impressed itself upon me!