Coleridge Notes – Plants vs. Aliens; Signal vs. Noise; Pedlary and Motly

by John Holbo on March 1, 2018

I’m doing a lot of SF research these days. Specifically, I’m reading (takes a breath): The statesman’s manual: or, The Bible the best guide to political skill and foresight: a lay sermon, addressed to the higher classes of society, with an appendix, containing comments and essays connected with the study of the inspired writings, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816).

It’s not really about science fiction. It’s best known, I guess, for Coleridge’s well-known distinction between allegory and symbol, drawn in these pages. But it’s fun! Remember when I had the great idea of reading all the Silmarillion in the voice of Lumpy Space Princess? Well, I would get behind a Kickstarter to record all of the Statesman in the voice of Monty Burns:

Yet this again – yet even Religion itself, if ever in its too exclusive devotion to the specific and individual it neglects to interpose the contemplation of the universal, changes its being into Superstition, and becoming more and more earthly and servile, as more and more estranged from the one in all, goes wandering at length with its pack of amulets, bead-rolls, periapts, fetisches, and the like pedlary, on pilgrimages to Loretto, Mecca, or the temple of Jaggernaut, arm in arm with sensuality on one side and self-torture on the other, followed by a motly group of friars, pardoners, faquirs, gamesters, flagellants, mountebanks, and harlots.

So where’s the science fiction?

Well, there’s plants. Coleridge gets very excited about plants. He wants to be a plant when he grows up.

And aliens. He’s got plants and aliens.

O!-if as the plant to the orient beam, we would but open out our minds to that holier light, which ‘being compared with light is found before it, more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of stars,’ (Wisdom of Solomon, vii. 29.) ungenial, alien, and adverse to our very nature would appear the boastful wisdom which, beginning in France, gradually tampered with the taste and literature of all the most civilized nations of Christendom, seducing the understanding from its natural allegiance, and therewith from all its own lawful claims, titles, and privileges.

I know, I know, just a coincidence that ‘stars’ and ‘alien’ are close together like that. But he rattles on about the excessive rationality of the French. So I think maybe this is the first triple conjunction, in English, of ‘stars’ ‘alien’ and ‘too rational for their own good’? Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic and all.

Coleridge likes ‘alien’, also ‘alienation’. Cognates occur frequently. I’m writing a bit about Utility Monsters (and Omelas), as well you know. So I thought this might be a good epigraph, from “The Night-Scene”:

Ah! was that bliss
Feared as an alien, and too vast for man?

I pointed out, during our Ada Palmer event, that Carlyle is first (1820) with ‘alien from another planet’. (I got that factoid from Brave New Words [amazon].) Alien, in a political or social relation sense; alienation of property – selling, in the legal sense; these are much older usages than the early 19th Century. But alienation in the psychological sense is only just coming as a primary sense, I think. ‘Alienist’, for example. Correct me if I’m wrong. In Robert Burns you get ‘parreck’, which means: “to force a ewe to Mother an alien lamb by closing them up together” (thanks, OED.) To us ‘alien lamb’ sounds like some weird Midwich Cuckoos scenario. There is no connotation of weirdness to Burns, obviously. It just means ‘unrelated’.

On the other hand, ‘alienation’ as a metaphor for a spiritual condition is attested by this point, but not widely. For example, OED gives a (1561) translation from Calvin: “As the spirituall life of Adam was, to abide ioyned and bounde to his creatour, so his alienation from him was the death of his soule.” Obviously separation from God is fallen-ness, spiritually. ‘Fallen’ itself is just a spatial separation metaphor.

Coleridge has ‘alien’ and ‘alienation’ metaphors and ideas and uses all over.

“Or worse than foe, an alienated friend”

I searched a complete works and came up with 88 occurrences.

There’s an ‘alien’ in that weird thing, Coleridge’s “Limbo“. He’s imagining the nothings of Limbo confronted by Something. Then these limbo dwellers are compared to moles, like something out of Kafka’s “Burrow”:

“—They shrink in, as Moles
(Nature’s mute monks, live mandrakes of the ground)
Creep back from Light — then listen for its sound: —
See but to dread, and dread they know not why —
The natural alien of their negative eye.”

That’s heavy, man! “Limbo” is nuts.

To close things out, here is Coleridge on signal vs. noise, in punditry.

Do you hold it a requisite of your rank to shew yourselves inquisitive concerning the expectations and plans of statesmen and state-counsellors? Do you excuse it as natural curiosity, that you lend a listening ear to the guesses of state-gazers, to the dark hints and open revilings of our self-inspired state fortune-tellers, ‘the wizards, that peep and mutter’ and forecast, alarmists by trade, and malcontents for their bread? And should you not feel a deeper interest in predictions which are permanent prophecies, because they are at the same time eternal truths? Predictions which in containing the grounds of fulfilment involve the principles of foresight, and teach the science of the future in its perpetual elements?

He’s not exactly Nate Silver, though. His idea is that you should read the newspaper through the lens of the Old and New Testament. A prescription subject to doubt, as methods for avoiding alarmism go.

I guess that’s not that much SF. Sorry. But that’s why I’m reading Coleridge. I’m looking for SF stuff.



Belle Waring 03.01.18 at 7:09 am

You guys all have to read Limbo, it is bonkers. I’m not certain the poem is actually good, but it’s fascinating. Something–someone–of substance travels to the place of bare, thin reality, where it terrifies all. But why is he hating on the beggar who carries messages for the suitors in the Odyssey? He’s hardly the worst person you’ll find in Limbo. I guess he’s sort of a chump, but really? And then, comparing the moles to live mandrakes? Mandrakes are alive, that’s their whole deal. I guess…as opposed to mandrakes who someone has killed. Um. And then the whole second half is about a blind man who has accidentally looked at the moon, producing an ennobling effect such as one would never see in Limbo. “He gazes still–his eyeless Face all Eye”. Then back to Limbo with its two ultimate threats, “naught-at-all” and Hell, “a fear–future fate–tis positive Negation.” But that can’t be non-existence as that’s a different threat and in any case Hell is something worse. So what’s “positive negation” mean here? Go home Coleridge, you’re drunk.

OK but having said that, if any of you are in the process of translating “The Burrow” afresh then I command you to use the section about moles as an epigraph because it is perfect in every way. I am in the process of reading all of Kafka and so just read the story. It is less humorous than most, granted. I’ve done the stories and The Trial and am half-way through The Castle. It is kind of bumming me out but having started the project I may as well finish. I read quickly so it is not a matter of time but of being made unhappy and anxious.


Jim Buck 03.01.18 at 7:26 am

Limbo? Is that where those who leave Omelas go?


SusanC 03.01.18 at 8:10 am

Go home Coleridge, you’re drunk.

Surely opium, rather than alcohol, given that it’s Coleridge…


John Holbo 03.01.18 at 8:21 am

“Go home Coleridge, you’re drunk.”

You don’t have to versify at home, but you can’t versify here.


Adam Roberts 03.01.18 at 8:52 am

I wrote a thing about “Limbo” on my Coleridge blog, here. I appreciate that looks like a naked attempt to drive traffic to my blog, so I’ll clarify: the link leads to a lengthy and super-abstruse post about STC, Homer, Heidegger and it’s fairly dull. Pretty much all the posts on that blog are like that. Apart from this one, which is very racy.


Belle Waring 03.01.18 at 9:21 am

You can be—and probably are—both drunk and high on laudanum, it being morphine in solution in alcohol. I would think once your tolerance for the morphine rose you’d start drinking more booze overall.


oldster 03.02.18 at 12:05 pm

“He gazes still–his eyeless Face all Eye”.

That, from “Limbo,” is a doublet of what JH quoted from “The Statesman’s Manual…”:

“O!-if as the plant to the orient beam, we would but open out our minds to that holier light,…”

When sunflowers do their heliotropic thing and turn their blossoms to “the orient beam” (nice to see “orient” used as a participle), then they are gazing at the sun with an eyeless face all eye.

It’s probably part of Coleridge’s Platonist inheritance: the idea that perfect communion involves rapturous gaze, the visio beatifica.


Lee A. Arnold 03.02.18 at 12:41 pm

Remarkable that the last 40 or so pages of Coleridge’s tract are a rather comprehensive overview of the economic system, and a chastisement of his contemporary Christianity for not doing enough to relieve the plight of people who are ravaged by credit cycles and the insufficiency and viciousness of the Poor Laws in the face of the obvious but not cleanly advantages of the system of Trade.


Lee A. Arnold 03.02.18 at 12:46 pm

This tract is not mentioned in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Weber, but it should have been. Coleridge complained how thin the gruel.

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