Sunday, February 21, 2010

`Pulses of Active and Passive Motion'

The narrow, winding, rock-filled creek behind our house was home to crayfish, leeches and what kids in the neighborhood called “water spiders.” Already pedantic readers of field guides, my brother and I corrected them: water striders, of the family Gerridae, wondrous, sliver-like insects that flit across water. Their feet are covered with water-repellant hairs and never break the surface. They’re skimming not swimming. (Among their folk names is “Jesus bugs.”) In his magisterial Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity, Stephen A. Marshall writes:

“Water striders use the entire water surface the way orb-weaver spiders use their webs. Any terrestrial insect unlucky enough to fall onto a pond surface, and to struggle and vibrate the surface the way a trapped insect vibrates a spider’s web, is likely to attract hungry water striders…”

Coleridge knew little of entomology but he took note of water striders, in particular their mode of locomotion, the way they move forward smoothly and then drift backwards, only to repeat the forward motion, as though enacting our species’ cliché for halting progress -- “Two steps forward, one step back.” In Chapter VII of his Biographia Literaria he strives to describe the workings of human creativity:

“Let us consider what we do when we leap. We first resist the gravitating power by an act purely voluntary, and then by another act, voluntary in part, we yield to it in order to alight on the spot, which we had previously proposed to ourselves. Now let a man watch his mind while he is composing; or, to take a still more common case, while he is trying to recollect a name; and he will find the process completely analogous.”

In one of his marvelous metaphoric leaps Coleridge continues:

“Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed, how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current, and now yielding to it in order to gather strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind's self-experience in the act of thinking. There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive.”

Coleridge intuitively grasps the way engaged imagination works. His biographer, Richard Holmes, lauds the passage and writes (in Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834):

“The psychology of this passage is remarkably modern. It seems to describe the actual process of creative inspiration, without resorting to the traditional idea of a muse. Instead it proposes a model of the engagement between the conscious forward drive of intellectual effort (`propulsion’), and the drifting backwards into unconscious materials (`yielding to the current’), constantly repeated in a natural diastolic movement like breathing or heartbeat. This is how creativity actually works: a mental (ultimately spiritual) rhythm which arises from the primary physical conditions of the natural world.”

Metaphors are memorable when rooted in the familiar. Thanks to Coleridge I often think of water striders when writing. Had he known of the insect’s hydrophobic feet and sensitivity to water vibrations, how might the poet have elaborated and refined his metaphor?

1 comment:

Nige said...

We call them pond skaters here now, tho they might have had other names in Coleridge's time. A wonderful image anyway - and wonderful things to see. They used to fascinate me in childhood - and the one we call the water boatman too, with legs that seem to work like oars...