Tuesday, June 18, 2013

`Trades, Manufactuaries, High Life, Low Life'

A thoughtful, amusing and characteristically confused entry in Coleridge’s notebook dated “Midnight 5 April 1805”: 

“I will write as truly as I can from Experience [--] actual individual Experience – not from Book-Knowle[d]ge. But yet it is wonderful how exactly the Knowle[d]ge from good books coincides with the experience of men of the World, as I have often noticed when much younger / in men of the World who beginning to withdraw a little into themselves, commonly by reading –" 

Coleridge’s late-night, laudanum-addled thoughts careen like pinballs. In the first phrase he might be Hemingway, with his he-man cult of experience. He sounds the now-familiar anti-intellectual platitudes of the intellectual – no book-learnin’ for me, says the book-intoxicated poet. At age thirty-two, he discovers wise men, “men of the World,” have found wisdom in books. Winning evidence of an incipient humility. 

“—I have noticed in them their deep delight in so many passages that had escaped me – so much in so many others which I had never heard of but from Books / Experience necessary no doubt, if only to give a light and shade in the mind, to give to some ideas a greater vividness than others, & thereby to make it a thing of Time and outward reality – practical – for all being equally vivid = the whole becomes a dream.” 

Reading grows deeper with age – not that a facile reader will ever read deeply. The text reveals itself sequentially, like a time-released pill. We and our books, “good books,” grow old together, tested against experience. 

“But not withstanding this & other reasons I yet believe that the saws against Book-knowle[d]ge are handed down to us from Times when Books conveyed only abstract Science or abstract Morality & Religion / whereas in the present day what is there of real Life in all its goings on, Trades, Manufacturies, high Life, low life, animate & inanimate, that is not in books. Books are conversation at present. Evil as well as Good in this, I well know / but Good too as well as Evil –” 

[From Coleridge’s Notebooks: A Selection, ed. Seamus Perry, Oxford University Press, 2002. The immediately preceding passage, dated April 2, is lovely, suggesting Coleridge should have paid more attention to the natural world and less to the contents of his mind: “The beautiful Milk Thistle with the milk-blue-white veins or fibres up & athwart its dark green Leaves.”]

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