coleridge and strangeness

The most obvious and unmistakable strangeness encountered in “the Rime…” are the “thousand slimy things,” the water snakes.  But there’s arguably something much freakier in the wedding guest’s repeated exclamations to the mariner, ‘i fear thy skinny hand.’  The creepiness which the image of the hand objectively lacks it regains tenfold as an object of strictly subjective experience of uncanniness that’s left to us to recreate in our own minds.  This is the point the graph below makes:

This is a graph that robot makers use to describe how robots actually become more disturbing as they become more human-like until they approach indistinguishibility from humans.  so the uncannyness of the mariner’s hand is like that of prosthetic hands:  their relative familiarity makes them potentially more troubling than a more overtly strange robot.  Coleridge could have taken the approach of minutely describing some horrific wound of the mariner’s; but attributing the mariner’s creepiness to his skinny and brown but otherwise normal hand draws us more deeply into the experience of his creepiness:  into the horror as a subjective state rather than an effect of an object.  Again like the tyger this poem sensitizes us to how our minds construct the objects by which they’re terrorized.

So poem like these make us realize that what repelled us is not outside us but inside us:  what’s scary is not the object itself but our way of viewing it.  This does not dispell the strangeness; according to Coleridge we can’t “declare” it beautiful or even really mean to love it.  It’s still as uncanny as ever, but we’ve somehow overcome the need to resist this uncannyness by projecting it on to some monstrous object like the tyger, or violently acting out and shooting birds.  Instead our spontaneous, subconscious attitude towards strangeness has been rewired in a way that expands us, makes our view on the world less pinched and defensive.  This makes us “wiser,” Coleridge says, but also “sadder:”  this wise openness to strangeness has a crucial humbling, diminishing effect, since we have to give up the attitude of sovereignty.  Interestingly recent science offers some evidence for Coleridge’s view of wisdom in strangeness.

Two interesting brief SCIENTIFIC ACCOUNTS of the wisdom of strangeness!

one on how experiencing strangeness helps thinking:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/health/06mind.html?_r=1

one on how strangeness itself thinks!

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/science/26obmold.html?emc=eta1

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4 Responses to coleridge and strangeness

  1. The play that the UBC BFA program is doing now, a dark French comedy from the mid-20th century, ‘Mad Woman of Shiloh” is quite absurd as it carefully maneuvers around one’s, even ironic, expectations. At the end of the play, the mad woman mass murders a bunch of corporate greedy people who cause genocides. But is she in the right? (Check out the play and come to terms with how not to decide.)

  2. (n.b. the play enables the audience to react with openness to the strangeness of the pinched and defensive reactions of the mad woman against what she sees as a strangeness but which is a pinched and aggressive reaction to modern concepts of money and exchange)

  3. sorry to keep posting, the play is called “Mad Woman of *Chaillot” and it definitely, as described in the first article listed, utilizes absurdity to inspire creative thinking.

  4. Alyzee Lakhani says:

    Aron, I saw the Madwoman of Chaillot on Thursday and definitely agree with you about the expansiveness and creative absurdity of the “madwoman”‘s strange world and way of thinking. It made me think that to be “mad” one has to author one’s own reality rather than take the one that is given I especially loved it when Aurelia (the madwoman) said “everybody knows that peals that start out fake grow more real day by day.” and when her consciously delusional friend replied “it is exactly the same with memories”, speaking of memories she invented and referred to repeatedly. I guess Zizek would call Aurelia a psychotic subject because she thought she had the power to change the world and purge it of its scheming and materialism.

    SPOILER ALERT (Look away and see the play!)

    Aron, do you think the innocent guy going down as an indication that Aurelia was deluded in thinking she could change the world? I’m not really interested in the goodness or badness of her actions, but I think the innocent guy going down in the end was a nagging reminder that there is a “cost to every action” and that Aurelia’s dream may have been untenable, even though we are told that everything is sunshiney after the bad guys are gone. What did you think ? I liked the set a lot.

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