Are you Experienced?

Are you Experienced?

Mr. Roger’s musings about Wordsworth and the definition of a poet reminded me of an issue I’d been meaning to write something about. It’s something about the “I” (ack!).

When people think of Romanticism, usually it’s Wordsworth who’s trotted out as the poster-boy. It’s a fair enough assumption, but this sort of unary lumping strategy really undercuts the complexity of what was going on at that time. There are some things that have always bugged me about Wordsworth that keep me at arms-length. While his influence can’t be denied, I think he was a big mess. It’s what happens when you set up childhood as the high-point in your life, and figure that everything is downhill from there. I don’t buy it. Shelley liked him though, and it shows. I remember a passage in a diary somewhere (I think it was Trelawny, but I could be wrong) where Byron complained about Shelley always trying to force Wordsworth on him. But Shelley took what Wordsworth was on about, and pushed it to a higher level, complicating it in the process. I like what Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry about childhood, which is strangely like Blake’s concept of a prelapsarian innocence.

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves. Many of the circumstances of social life were then important to us which are no longer so. But that is not the point of comparison which I mean to insist. We less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves. They seemed as it were to constitute one mass. There are some persons who in this respect are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction. And these are states which precede or accompany or follow an unusually intense and vivid apprehension of life. As men grow up, this power commonly decays, and they become mechanical and habitual agents. Their feelings and reasons are the combined result of a multitude of entangled thoughts, of a series of what are called impressions, planted by reiteration.

Besides being a great description of the LSD experience, the concept of innocence as a unary thing, is strangely at odds with his language: “a distinct and intense apprehension” of things that “constitute one mass.” No inside, no outside— and yet it is described as being “distinct.” Things can only be distinct when separated from the things that they are not; fallen language just can’t deal with the problem. But whether arrived at through authentic childhood memory, or more recent drug experience, this revelation moves Shelley to denigrate the importance of the individual, distinctly at odds with the conception of the Romantics as champions of the individual, and the poet as the lone suffering figures of the age.

The view of life presented by the most refined deductions of intellectual philosophy, is that of unity. Nothing exists but as it is perceived. The difference is merely nominal between those two classes of thought which are vulgarly distinguished by those the names of ideas and of external objects. Pursuing the same thread of reasoning, the existence of distinct individual minds similar to that which is employed in now questioning its own nature, is likewise found to be a delusion. The words I, you, they, are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind.

Shelley goes on to disclaim any illusion that he might be thought to be speaking as the “one mind,” but rather as himself, constrained by language:

It is difficult to find terms adequately to express so subtle a conception as that to which the intellectual philosophy has conducted us. We are on that verge where words abandon us, and what wonder if we grow dizzy to look down the dark abyss of— how little we know.

I get dizzy when I read that. Now that “intellectual philosophy” has moved away from the unary conception of things, it still isn’t any easier and we don’t know much more.

One thing seems certain to me though. Whatever “real” answers their are, they are bound to be complicated. If there is “one mind” as Shelley postulates, it’s certainly got a lot of distinct thoughts going on. Shelley’s notion of the child is infinitely more complex than Wordsworth, with deeper implications. We aren’t children any more. We’re all pretty damn experienced, and we’ve all been experienced as well.