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The free spirit hurled onward

May 30, 2016

[Consisting of links to various books and articles of note.]

I’ve recently been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Not really an autobiography, it’s more a critique of Wordsworth’s poetic theory combined with a defense of Wordsworth’s poetry; along the way Coleridge tries to clarify the relationship between imagination and criticism. Much here worth quoting; I particularly like his account of why poems are written in meter:

The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself. Like the motion of a serpent, which the Egyptians made the emblem of intellectual power; or like the path of sound through the air; at every step he pauses and half recedes, and from the retrogressive movement collects the force which again carries him onward. ‘Precipitandus est liber spiritus,’ says Petronius Arbiter most happily. The epithet, liber, here balances the preceding verb; and it is not easy to conceive more meaning condensed in fewer words. (Chapter XIV)

My edition translates the Latin as “The free spirit must be hurried onward”; a more literal version might be “The free spirit is to-be-hurled-onward.” The basic thought, as I read it, is that thought is both active and passive, an experience of tension alternating with a movement of relaxation, and meter helps hurl us into the freedom of the imagination.


Coleridge thinks free thought to be something like the telos of human life, and he also recognizes how easily the circumstances of our lives can prevent us from achieving it (for this reason he encourages all would-be poets to become curates, thus ensuring that their lives will be leisurely). So I imagine he would have a modicum of sympathy with the sorts of claims this article in Jacobin makes for the coming Marxist utopia:

No more would “great art” simply be the purview of a lucky, transcendentally gifted few, but something symphonically integrated into our everyday lives. Socialism will be the first absolute unleashing of creativity in human history, in which the entirety of each individual’s imagination, talents, and mental and physical capacities would be allowed to blossom.

But only a modicum. Coleridge would despise the suggestion that, once we take away the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the imagination will simply flourish like the lilies of the valley which neither toil nor spin. This might be true if imagination means merely self-expression, and if everyone had a self they could more or less straightfowardly express, but it doesn’t, and in any case they don’t. The imagination has to do with thought, and it takes effort (if of a peculiar kind) to achieve the true thought and avoid the false.

The article’s vision of the socialist paradise depends on its analysis of “that atomizing, humiliating feeling pushed down our throats by so many tastemakers and cultural gatekeepers: that we are of little consequence to history’s greatest creations.” What nonsense. This feeling isn’t forced on us because the Man (what man?) wants to keep us down. Each of us force it on each other, because most of what most of us make just isn’t very good, especially not compared to the works of Shakespeare or Milton.


The only way for our imaginations to escape the threat of humiliation would be for us to refrain from ever criticizing each others’ imaginings—but this would require either universal harmony, or universal atomization. The former we will never achieve until heaven and earth have passed away. The latter would horrify even the most ardent capitalist, but it is possible: we just have to say that we cannot meaningfully respond to the content of another’s imaginative creations, only to the fact that they were created.

Well, I suppose the latter has already begun to happen:

“In class, sometimes I say, ‘Is your identity a kind of knowledge?’ ” James O’Leary, an assistant professor of musicology at the Oberlin Conservatory, told me. “The answer, for forever, has been no.” But his current students often vigorously disagree. In the post-Foucaultian tradition, it’s thought to be impossible to isolate accepted “knowledge” from power structures, and sometimes that principle is turned backward, to link personal discomfort with larger abuses of power. “Students believe that their gender, their ethnicity, their race, whatever, gives them a sort of privileged knowledge—a community-based knowledge—that other groups don’t have,” O’Leary went on. The trouble comes when their perspectives clash.

The less said about such things, perhaps, the better.


I was surprised to see the power-to-the-imagination article published in Jacobin, which I think of as a place that makes socialist arguments in realistic terms. But I suppose that realism only applies to the critique of the current regime; for socialists, the regime-to-come is an eschatological concept. In the terms of a recent Slate Star Codex essay, Jacobin is pessimistic about capitalism, and thinks capitalism is flawed because it creates conflict rather than collaboration. My pessimism, like Scott’s, comes from a slightly different worry: what if collaborative goodwill can only go so far?

The southeast corner is people who think that we’re all in this together, but that helping the poor is really hard. They agree with the free school lunch crowd that capitalism is more the solution than the problem, and that we should think of this in terms of complicated impersonal social and educational factors preventing poor people from fitting into the economy. But the southeasterners worry school lunches won’t be enough. Maybe even hiring great teachers, giving everybody free health care, ending racism, and giving generous vocational training to people in need wouldn’t be enough. If we held a communist revolution, it wouldn’t do a thing: you can’t hold a revolution against skill mismatch. This is a very gloomy quadrant, and I don’t blame people for not wanting to be in it. But it’s where I spend most of my time.

What I would add, perhaps, is this: all social systems work through incentives (this is the only way they can work), and even the best system of incentives will not produce an optimal outcome. The solution isn’t revolution—that would just mean replacing the current incentive system with another. Rather, we need to overcome our enslavement to the incentives we face, and try to do what’s actually the right thing. But this kind of freedom can’t be incentivized, and so can’t be systematized. The best we can do is create a society where it’s possible for each individual person to achieve it.


I have my doubts that Scott with agree with that last part, and I take this disagreement to trace the boundary between humanism and technocratism. Alan Jacobs’s current book project is about this divergence, as it took shape in the 1940s; his recent post on the topic resembles in some ways my digression on five English modernist Catholic poets.


Speaking of digressions, let us now return to the propulsion of the free spirit, i.e. to the role of meter in the imagination. Consider this piece about the difference between modality and tonality, which turns out to be is the difference between spirit and letter,  and between metrical movement through time, and calcified spatial relations:

The entire raison d’être of modal music is to stretch the umbilical cord which connects it to its fundamental generating principle (the primal frequency) to the limit, only to be drawn inexorably back to the point of its beginning — and thus its ending. At this “point” when it once again becomes One with its creator, universal harmony is restored. In modal music intervals only have a function as they are related to their “creator”, not to each other. without their fundamental they cannot exist.

Cf. also my ramblings from two years ago about philosophical temperament.

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