Friday, July 18, 2014

`Direct Oppugnancy to the Good'

What follows is a brief digressive detour illustrating the way one reader reads and suggesting how everything seems to be connected, at least to those who try to pay attention. Coleridge is a long-standing interest, as writer and man. He is sad and often infuriating, and his example reminds us how even genius is prey to self-sabotage. Richard Holmes’s biography, The Early Visions, 1772-1804 (1989) and Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 (1998), is the urtext for this long, sorry story. That Coleridge wrote anything coherently readable is a miracle, as is the sheer volume of work (sixteen titles in twenty-three bulky volumes in the collected edition from Princeton University Press) he managed to accumulate. It says something that the scholar who wrote a brief critical biography of Coleridge in 1968 (and co-edited the Princeton Biographia Literaria), W. Jackson Bate, also wrote the great modern biography of Dr. Johnson. 

Aids to Reflection (1825) contains the poet’s musings on religion. The prose is dense, the theological references often obscure and the arguments recondite, and I confess to doing some skimming. It’s one of those volumes I had read about but never in. Occasionally, the narcotic mists will part and Coleridge will write with pithy tartness. Here, from the section titled “Aphorisms on Spiritual Religion,” which is seldom aphoristic, is a focused point of light (characteristically, in parentheses): “(And whatever is placed in active and direct Oppugnancy to the Good is, ipso facto, positive Evil.)” 

Three things impress me: 1. The anomalous terseness of the sentence, by Coleridge’s customary standards. 2. Its bracing certainty of tone. 3. Oppugnancy. The word spelled love at first sight for this reader. By context and etymology I gauged its meaning -- from oppugnantia, resistance or opposition. Its power as a word in English is amplified by echoes of repugnance and pugnacity. It sounds like the name of a stage Irishman – Kevin O’Pugnacity. In comparison, the OED is disappointingly sober: “opposition; antagonism; conflict.” But the dictionary also reminds us that Shakespeare put the word to memorable use in Ulysses’ rousing speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3: 

“O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy.” 

This is one of the great articulations of the conservative spirit, the will to preserve order and dwell within an honored tradition, the opposite of what what the death-cultists are trying to do to Israel. Ulysses' speech recalls Evelyn Waugh in Robbery Under Law (1939): 

“Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilised man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come from merely habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.”

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