The encounter which swept away the last vestiges of Spinozism from Coleridge’s worldview was his extramarital encounter with Sara Hutchinson, or Asra as he refashioned her name. Coleridge’s encounters with German idealism and Sara Hutchinson came in quick succession, the first in 1798, the second in 1799. It was the combination of philosophical idealism and extra-marital love that was incendiary, not the former in isolation, which Coleridge ultimately deemed to be inadequate because of its Spinozist polarity. Fichte came close, with his invitation to imagine the first encounter of two human beings, the summoning to a mutuality of experience, a ‘reciprocal interaction’. However, the result of encounter for Fichte was synthesis, a reduction of two to one, rather than the feminine principle of reflection, resulting in not one, or even two, but the three of fecund creativity.
Originally drafted as ‘Letter to Sara Hutchinson’, ‘Dejection: An Ode’ was later grouped with the Asra poems that were dedicated to Sara. Ostensibly about unrequited love and loss - it announces too the philosophical changes in Coleridge:
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west :
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
Gone would be a dependence on ‘outward forms’ and his own sense perception of them as the source of inspiration. Empiricism was the ‘vain endeavour’ from which nothing is gained, however long he might ‘gaze’. Love turned him inward, away from passive responses to ‘outward forms’, to the source of all that is vital, the active shaping of an objective world by the God-like ‘I’. And to emphasise that inner vitality he has ‘passion and the life’ literally gushing from the ‘fountains’ of the subjective self. Link passion to the crucifixion of Jesus, and Coleridge has death to the world and new life lifted to a higher plane.
He addressed the poem to Sara. His love for Asra marked the ‘I thou’ awakening of conscience, or new life. You could say that before meeting Asra, Coleridge had neither consciousness nor conscience. The love for Sara Hutchinson was a redemptive sin, a fall with positive consequences that echoed others.
Did not Dante’s decision to press beyond the garden in Canto XXVII of Purgatory show that it was not just a point of arrival, but the necessary pre-condition for moral life? He was drawn on to continue his journey by the prospect of meeting Beatrice. In tempting him beyond the garden Beatrice assumed the role of Eve.
Was not Milton’s Eve aware of vain labours in a garden ever more luxuriant and forever on the verge of wilderness? The argument with Eve in Book IX of Paradise Lost exposed Adam to the truth of what Eve had known all along. Their strained contentment in the Garden was no way to live - docile, passive and slaves to nature.
In Book Twelve, Adam proclaims that the good resulting from the Fall that Eve induced is ‘more wonderful’ than the goodness in creation. He exclaims:
Oh goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!
Sin and transgression became a positive act of defiance that resonates with the felix culpa, the happy fall, of Augustine’s writings: For God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit any evil to exist’. In other words, Eve is essential to forward development.
The conflation of Sara Hutchinson and Beatrice with Eve reminds me of a statement attributed to the novelist, Francois Mauriac: ‘A chance encounter between two people could have implications for eternity.’ Mauriac, in turn, was influenced in this idea by Gabriel Marcel who remarked that ‘relationships between things are external, relationships between people are internal.’ Better he had said that some relationships between people are internal, not all by a long way.
Remember Schreber’s metamorphic nightmare of becoming a feminised Jew,
a bundle of of sense-impressions, with no inner core. This Weiningerian composite is the universalised state of mankind in the Republick of Merchants - in Weininger’s terms, the death of the creative self, in short, dehumanisation. And yet the chance encounter can instill the ‘I’ where there is emptiness. Sirenic temptation becomes a moment of transformative learning, the resurrection of the self, the creative self which, in Coleridgean terms, equates to the divine self. Out of transgressive and unrequited love, a bondage remains, a perpetual troubadourian crisis of wandering minstrelsy, or creativity, that will never let go, a permanency of self where there was nothing before - felix culpa, happy fall, scarlet woman, the angel of Dolce stil nuova, portal to the divine.
The love of Dante for Beatrice is the exemplar of all life-changing encounters. He met her briefly, she greeted him and walked on, and yet through the encounter his life was changed forever. Why? This was the metaphysical question and the answer was to be found inside of him. Without that chance encounter he would never have left the Hell of unknowing. Eros led him. Lust encouraged him. Loss destroyed him. Rejection and humiliation led him to the wall of fire.
Shortly before sunset, the Poets are greeted by the Angel of Chastity, who instructs them to pass through the wall of fire. By reminding Dante that Beatrice can be found in the Earthly Paradise on the other side, Virgil finally persuades Dante to pass through the intense fire. After the poets pass through the flame, the sun sets and they lie down to sleep on the steps between the final terrace and the Earthly Paradise.
Virgil urges Dante to explore the Earthly Paradise until he meets Beatrice. Before sending him off, Virgil blesses him with these words: ‘there I crown and mitre you over yourself.’ This is an expression of explosive political significance. Dante had attained the power of mind over which no secular or clerical authority can rule. He takes both crown and mitre upon himself. Dante’s decision to go beyond the garden shows it is not just a point of arrival, but the necessary pre-condition for moral life. Under his own self-mastery, his choice becomes a positive act of defiance that resonates with ‘felix culpa’, the happy fall. Dante was determined to explore beyond that which we see. Political, religious and psychological freedom coalesced, and it was all down to a passing encounter.
The theme of wilful disobedience is examined in Beatrice’s Paradise I exposition of the Cosmos. ‘All things observe a mutual order among themselves’, said Beatrice, ‘and this is the structure that makes the universe resemble God’. This too is the premise of Dante's cosmos, in which all natures have their bent, their given instincts. Just as a flame always rises when lit, a stone always falls when dropped. This is the natural order. The question should already be rising in the reader’s mind - are we like that? Think of that child, who turns spontaneously without necessity ‘to what delights it.’ The answer to the question is, most emphatically, no. Beatrice explains by expanding upon the theme of creativity with a metaphor from art. ‘Just as form is sometimes inadequate to the artist’s intention, because the material fails to answer, so the creature, that has power, so impelled, to swerve towards some other place, sometimes deserts the track.’ In other words, within the description of the order of the cosmos, Beatrice emphasises that human beings are the odd ones out, with the power to deviate from the the cosmic order.
Dante had invoked the felix culpa, happy fall, once more. Man not only has the power to breach the cosmic order, but in so doing can re-order the cosmos. He is restating the freedom of the crowned and mitred one. And it was Beatrice who led him here; to be a transgressor, a disrupter of the cosmic equilibrium, rather than being absorbed into its perpetual and Spinozist harmony.
Woman, Demeter, Earth-mother, nature, the external other in the chance encounter, Eve, you lead us to temptation and Fall. ‘A chance encounter between two people can have implications for eternity.’ Love, transgression, happy fall, these things awaken consciousness; and in consciousness the magic lies. To be conscious is to be human. To be more human is to be more divine, because consciousness cannot exist in harmony with the world, it is in the world, but ‘not of the world’. By its very nature it must live in confrontation with the world and change it - with ‘implications for eternity’.
This is not to say that consciousness is to be understood as an adjunct to cosmic evolution per se, i.e. mankind at ONE with the Logos in carrying out the work of the latter. This is where we left Steiner. This is where the theories of Ilyenkov and Vernadsky ended up, with man as central to the evolutionary stage of the Noosphere. These were all Spinozist theories in the end - Ilyenkov’s openly so - arguing that man exists to serve some purpose greater than himself, repeatedly introducing a passivity into man’s existence. This is all wrong. Man’s power is not purposive, it is unconditional. If consciousness and conscience define what it means to be human, then man is the chooser of his own purpose.
‘Nothing is extinguished in the human personality’, emphasised Tomberg. So if we are not to be extinguished in the oneness of Spinozist Substance, and if we are not to be lost in the oneness of a Fichtean or Gentilean ego, how is the apartness, or the consciousness, of mankind to be preserved?
If consciousness and mind cannot be subject to rational explanation, then the answer to this question will not be found in the domain of the problematical and the objectively valid. Love is the only starting point of such mysteries of body and soul. Love leads to thought which is not thought itself brought to bear on love. It is a dizzying reflectiveness without reference points. I am not referring to love in the agape giving sense, I mean unrelieved sickness and nausea, Eros, sexuality, destructive lust. To be stuck in the domain of the problematical and the objectively valid is to be enveloped in assurance and certainty. And yet what are the criteria of true love? There are none. Criteria only exist in the order of the objective and problematical. Criteria, those presuppositions, belong over there, with them, ‘the they’. Love belongs over here, with me as an individual and the mystery.
I think about that chance encounter. It left a deep and lasting scar on all my life. I am still attached to her, and I would never have predicted that… how did this happen? I am asking a metaphysical question here. I am asking about causality. I am in the presence of a mystery i.e. a reality rooted beyond the domain of the problematical and the day-to-day challenges of just getting by. And this is no fanciful reminiscence, for in the chance encounter’s awakening of consciousness, with its ‘implications for eternity’, we cut right to the heart of religious mystery. For what is Love? God is Love.
© John Dunn.