Introduction: The Tool of the Imagination

 

    If the Imagination can stand as the best concept with which to define

Romanticism, then the pursuit of the coincidence of opposites, one of the

favorite tools of the Imagination--if not indeed its only tool--can stand as a

fundamental activity of writers of the Romantic era.  The power of the

coincidence of opposites to generate the visions of Romanticism arises from

its simplicity and its profundity.  What could be simpler than to say "black"

in response to "white"?  What could be more profound than to say that God

becomes man or Jesus becomes Satan? 

    The urging toward coincidences of opposites in the writers I discuss here

originates from a discontent with the way things are.  Nicolas Cusanus,

Alexander Pope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley,

and William Blake all lament ordinary, accepted ways of living and perceiving;

they all insist that we should change our ontology and therefore our

epistemology by acknowledging that logical opposites, which by standard

Aristotelian thinking are mutually exclusive, can indeed coincide.

    To the twentieth-century ear, the word "coincidence" smacks of chance and

randomness.  To call something a coincidence implies that it should not really

happen and thus allows us to dismiss the coincidence as an improbable, unusual

anomoly that, according to probability, will not happen again.  The history of

the word in English, as chronicled in the Oxford English Dictionary, reveals

that this dismissive meaning gradually creeps in, as the word is linked with

"casual" and "undesigned."  The root meaning of the Latin word, which was used

in the seventeenth century as a verb in English in its Latin form,

"coincidere," is simply "to occur together." <1>  It was a term in astrology. 

When two planets come together in the sky in a conjunction, they coincide. 

For example, Venus and Mars, whose basic energies are opposed, can come

together in conjunction.  Neither one necessarily over-rules the other, but

neither are they reconciled.  The two opposing forces, occupying the same

space at the same time, interact in dynamic interchange. <2>  They exert their

opposing forces in a coincidence of opposites.  From an astrological

perspective, such a coincidence is not an improbable accident of chance, but

an essential element of God's total artistic pattern of the universe.  As we

lost astrology from our universe, we also lost the most basic meaning of

coincidence.  "Having no apparent causal connexion" gradually became the most

common meaning of the word.  So to the modern lack of imagination the

conjunction of Venus and Mars is a meaningless coincidence.  In fact, from

that perspective, the two planets do not really occupy the same space at the

same time; they simply appear close from our vantage point.

    When the writers in this study explore the coincidentia oppositorum, they

are not only working to bring opposites together, but they are working from an

assumption that coincidence is not chance, but pattern.  Pope, without using

the word "coincidence," virtually says as much.  Thus, the struggle of these

writers is twice as hard as one might expect: not only are they working

against the powerful Aristotelian tradition that logically excludes the

coincidence of opposites, but they are also working against a trend in which

the very word which basically means "occurring together because these things

are part of a total harmonious plan" is coming more and more to mean

"occurring by unimportant chance because in this unfathomable universe you

might be unlucky enough to get struck by lightning." 

    The most frequent emphasis in the definitions of "coincide" and

"coincidence" in the OED is on the occupation of space:

 

    Coincidence . . . the occupation of the same place or part of space.

    

    Coincide . . . To fall together and agree in position; to occupy the same

    area or portion of space (as e.g. the superposed triangles in Euclid I.8);

    to be identical in area and position.  Said of points, lines, or any

    geometrical magnitudes.

 

As we shall see, Nicolas Cusanus works especially from principles of Euclidean

congruence to develop his divine geometry, in which the infinite line and the

infinite circle coincide.  For now we can note that if two finite triangles

coincide so perfectly as to be exactly superimposable, they will appear to be

one.  From a Newtonian perspective, such oneness would be only an optical

illusion, much like the illusion from astrology when Venus and Mars appear to

coincide.  When Isaac Newton describes his experiments, as quoted in the OED,

he implies just such a perspective:

 

    1704 Newton Opticks 1 J  These circles..as I went from them, they

    came nearer and nearer together, and at length became coincident. 

   

In the universe of Newton, such a coincidence is merely an appearance. 

Obviously the circles did not really become one; they just looked like one

from the observer's skewed perspective.  The writers here will also play with

such perspectives, especially in mirror images, but beyond the games on the

surface, these writers are searching for a bedrock of coincidences of

opposites in which the oneness does not arise like some optical illusion just

because of the relative values of space and time, but because of the

fundamental structures of the universe, both physical and spiritual, beyond

space and time.

    In chapter 1, I set out some of the key concepts of the fifteenth-century

monk who is credited with developing the concept of the coincidentia oppositorum in his De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance).  Essentially Nicolas Cusanus argues that finite logic prohibits us from understanding much about God, Who by His very perfect completeness must include coincidences of opposites.  Although Cusanus seems content to leave most of the ways of God unfathomable to man, he does point toward more radical joinings of man and God that Blake will fulfill.  In chapter 2, I show how Alexander Pope's Essay on Man sets man in relation to a universe, the apparent disorder of which is

really God's artistic plan.  Like Cusanus, Pope insists that only by confounding ordinary logical restrictions can man begin to accept the totality that includes him.  When I originally decided to include Pope, I thought that he would provide a useful neo-classical, conservative contrast to the later Romantics.  Although he does provide such a contrast, I have discovered that many of his pronouncements are remarkably similar not only to Coleridge's but even to Blake's.  In chapter 3, I discuss Samuel Taylor Coleridge's explicit

search for the reconciliation of oppositions in his prose and poetry, and I conclude with a late poem dedicated to the eleventh-century monk Berengarius, who, in a way that Coleridge is particularly sympathetic to, tried but failed to maintain his vision of one particular coincidence of opposites, the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  Those first three writers all maintain, to varying degrees and with various emphases, a fundamentally conservative view of God's universe.  Although Coleridge, as the first Romantic writer in my study, tries to break through to a greater participation in the spiritual world, he finally

acquiesces in mystery, as do Cusanus and Pope, as the final condition of man and universe. 

    Chapter 4, on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, comes in the middle, halfway

between the conservatism of Cusanus, Pope, and Coleridge, and the radicalism

of Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake.  With attention especially to the

concentric circles of the narrative technique, I explore the opposition

between the selfish egotism that blatantly strikes every reader and the less

obvious selflessness that goes beyond even friendship, especially in the

critically neglected tale of the noble fellow near the beginning of the novel. 

Although Frankenstein does present basically a pessimistic view of the human

condition, its counter-theme of disinterested benevolence constructs a dynamic

attempt to find a coincidence of opposites.  In chapter 5, the opposition

between self and other emerges in several poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley. 

After the disasters of solipsism in Alastor and the triumph of coincidences of

opposites in Prometheus Unbound, I conclude with the unresolved struggle

between outer and inner in The Triumph of Life.

    Chapters 6, 7, and 8 are devoted to William Blake.  In chapter 6, I

analyze "The Mental Traveller," an archetypal presentation of the absolute

failure of the oppositions between male and female to come to any resolution

as they spin around in their circles of mutual hatred.  In chapter 7, I

explore Blake's internal eternity, especially in Jerusalem, and the methods of

self becoming other that Blake urges to help us perceive and live that

internal eternity.  In chapter 8, I focus on "Monos o Iesous," the Greek

inscription on plate 4 of Jerusalem, to show how the simultaneous

transcendence and immanence contained in that phrase lead to a totally

inclusive vision of the coincidence of opposites.

    Clearly my approach is not chronological, but instead situates these

writers along a continuum of how far they go in exploiting the revolutionary

potential of the coincidentia oppositorum.  Although the order of my

presentation of these writers thus contains a certain logic, each chapter is

fundamentally self-contained and therefore can be read on its own.  The reader

who skips over the chapters on Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley may find

the thread of the argument clearer, but she will miss some marvelous

complications. 

    Through all eight chapters I point out similarities in the writers'

confrontations with the question of the coindentia oppositorum, especially in

the ways that they use the imagery of circles to give us geometrical pictures

of abstract concepts.  In each writer, those circles arise from the

interaction of two basic universal forces, a centripetal, implosive force that

works toward the center and promotes self-preservation, and a centrifugal,

explosive force that pushes out the circumference and urges self-annihilation. 

Since the former force is the one that "naturally" predominates in humans,

these writers all emphasize the latter, not in order to replace one force with

the other, but to find a fruitful interaction between them.

    Although the principle of the coincidentia oppositorum that I explore here

has many similarites with other binary systems, I must distinguish it from

some of the most obvious other systems that might spring to mind.  First,

although Hegelian patterns can be useful by analogy, finally the coincidentia

oppositorum does not search for a tertium quid to resolve the tension. 

Reconciliation, although sometimes the goal of some of these writers, is not

essential, and in fact is explicitly eschewed by Blake: "Whoever tries to


4

reconcile them [opposing forces of Devouring and Prolific] seeks to destroy

existence." <3> The word "oppositorum" in coincidentia oppositorum requires a

dynamic back-and-forth, springing from irreducible alterity.  At the other

extreme of binary criticism, deconstruction can provide worthwhile analogies:

 

    Far from being a chain which moves deeper and deeper into the text, closer

    and closer to a definitive interpretation of it, the mode of criticism

    sometimes now called 'deconstruction,' which is analytic criticism as

    such, encounters always, if it is carried far enough, some mode of

    oscillation.  In this oscillation two genuine insights into literature in

    general and into a given text in particular inhibit, subvert, and undercut

    one another.  This inhibition makes it impossible for either insight to

    function as a firm resting place, the end point of analysis.  <4> 

 

Although the dynamic character of deconstructive moves is similar to that of

the coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidentia oppositorum does not revel in

endless oscillation.  Instead the word "coincidentia" requires a complete

coming together, a copulative interpenetration.

    In this combination of coincidence, which always unifies, and opposites,

which always repel each other, lies the fundamental paradox, with which the

finite mind can stretch itself to a larger, more comprehensive view of

existence.  But that stretching is not simply a shift in perspective, by which

to alter epistemology.  Although each of these writers focusses intently on

issues of sight, and often on issues of light that aids or baffles that sight,

the epistemology that they urge is a by-product of a new ontology.  For if

one's being in the universe changes, then one's perspective changes also.  And

vice versa.  Blake brings to a climax a view of the universe that these other

writers approach: accepting the coincidence of opposites gives us a whole new

universe to see and a whole new ontology of living in that universe.  In the

thematically opposed stories of the transfiguration and of the woman taken in

adultery, which I discuss in chapter 8, Blake presents a revolutionary

combination of transcendence and immanence.  The opposites come together in a

way that can propel us into a new world, which, as at the end of Prometheus

Unbound or the end of Jerusalem, is exactly the same world as before, yet at

the same time totally different.  Sameness in difference, and difference in

sameness. 

    I do not attempt to escape what McGann describes as the Romantic Ideology:

 

    scholarship and criticism of Romanticism and its works are dominated by a

    Romantic Ideology, by an uncritical absorption in Romanticism's own self-

    representations. . . . Romantic poetry incorporates Romantic Ideology as

    a drama of the contradictions which are inherent to that ideology.  <5>

 

Still less do I escape what Anne Mellor calls "masculine" Romanticism:

 

    a binary model is already deeply implicated in "masculine" Romanticism. .

    . . The principle of polarity . . . requires the construction of an Other

    which is seen as a threat to the originating subject. . . . the women

    writers of the Romantic period resisted this model of oppositional

    polarity . . . for one based on sympathy and likeness. <6>

 

Mellor herself questions her own method of employing a binary structure, which

she says is necessary on the way toward learning to "think beyond a dialectic

based on polarities" <7>.  In fact, I contend that the coincidence of

opposites, especially in the hands of Blake, incorporates not only struggle

against an Other in a masculine model of oppositional polarity but also, and

just as strongly, a feminine model of sympathy and likeness with that Other. 

While I agree that we need to think beyond polarities, or at least to try to,

the practice of thinking into and with polarities is one method that will help

us think beyond.  "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become

wise."  This book is my folly; perhaps one day I will achieve a prospect from


5

which, as Jerome McGann has done, I can repudiate my former errors. 

Meanwhile, I plunge in, willing to fall rather than not make definite shapes

and minute particulars.

    The imagination as I explore it through the coincidence of opposites

refuses to be bound by rationality--it does not seek a middle ground between

extremes.  It includes extremes.  It embraces paradox. The simplest and most

fundamental way of rising from ordinary perception to imaginative perception

is by seeing through the false limits imposed by an abstract logic that denies

that A and not-A can exist at the same time and to the same extent.

    The logic of the human mind, and its attempts to find or establish

institutions and other forms of order, need to work in dualisms--us/them,

inside/outside, good/evil, etc.  Such binarism is widely condemned by many

literary critics today, as they seek new positions that are more inclusive. 

While emphases on inclusion and diversity take us in the right direction, they

can become static and even dogmatic.  The implications of the coincidence of

opposites lead toward dynamic open-mindedness.  The coincidence of opposites

requires a radical combination of otherness and selfhood.  The imagination

must hold--without clutching--the unity of all humanity in one--called Albion

by Blake--and at the same time the absolute individuality of each person and

therefore the irreducible otherness of individuals and the world.  This

paradoxical combination opens a world of inclusiveness, tolerance, and

creativity.

    Of course all theories of literature, even the most inclusive ones, remain

too small.  The coincidence of opposites, however, provides a dynamic

framework for thought that refuses to accept its own boundaries.  I do not

intend in my emphasis on the coincidence of opposites to assert closure or

any kind of dogmatic system or "key" to Romanticism or to Blake.  But I do

assert that the coincidence of opposites is an often neglected tool for

opening up Blake and Romanticism.

    The coincidence of opposites serves as a fundamental and inclusive theory

to incorporate and confront not only older methods of thought but also to

acknowledge and respond to recent trends such as dialogism and deconstruction. 

Like deconstruction, the coincidence of opposites destroys complacency with

the simplest of techniques: slap-in-the-face denial:

   

    Blake's technique of contrary or diabolical reading . . . which proceeds

    by inverting the privileged oppositions in a text (as in his

    transvaluation of Milton's devils and angels) and then by calling into

    question the whole system that keeps them opposed, seems to me very close

    to the method of deconstruction.  <8> 

   

And like dialogism, the coincidence of opposites constructs systems in the

most comprehensive way by allowing various voices to be heard.  Refusing to

tolerate the soft edges of compromise and smiley faces, it produces a hard

edge that escapes perspectivism. 

    Except for Blake, the writers covered in this volume all accept, in one

form or another, a kind of "learned ignorance," like that promulgated by

Nicholas of Cusa.  The human condition is frequently baffled by

contradictions; we remain ignorant, but hope or believe that some higher power

has the contradictions well in hand.  Refusing to allow such ignorance, Blake

blasts through the mysteries of contradictions to transcend, to

transubstantiate, to transfigure the dull round of rationality.  Stephen

Behrendt describes Blake's break-throughs as "a daring end run around the


6

reasoning intellect that is everywhere both the goal and the mechanism of

Blake's art." <9>  I prefer, however, to describe Blake's break-throughs as

confrontations of the reasoning intellect with its contrary, the imagination. 

The reason, like Bacon, Newton, and Locke at the end of Jerusalem, is not to

be defeated and abandoned, is not to be dismissed and avoided in an end run,

but rather to be confronted at every turn, forced into illuminating

coincidences of opposites.  In fact, Behrendt's own description of Blake's

method includes, confronts, and contains rationality instead of excluding it:

 

    Blake's art is grounded not in the empirical/analytical model of

    perception and cognition to which we have all become accustomed as readers

    and viewers but rather in one that invokes and exploits that conditioned

    expectation of empirical orientation in order to destablize and subvert

    it. <10> 

 

Like deconstruction, with which Blake's method has many similarities, terms

under erasure are questioned, fronted, opposed, but not completely destroyed. 

They still exist as vivid and necessary parts of the process of the

imagination.

    I can remember countless times when I dropped the books of the

philosophers and picked up those of the poets again.  The philosophers kept

insisting that I abandon paradoxes, that I agree to submit to reasonable

probability, step by logical step.  But I always agreed with Blake, when he

stated a similar preference for miracles over probabilistic history:

 

    Historians . . . cannot see either miracle or prodigy; all is to them a

    dull round of probabilities and possibilites; but the history of all times

    and places, is nothing else but improbabilities and impossibilities; what

    we should say, was impossible if we did not see it always before our eyes. 

    <11>

 

The coincidence of opposites is one of the major ways to celebrate those

impossibilities and improbabilities that spring up every moment before us and

in us.

    The title of this volume, "All Nature is but Art" is taken from Pope's

Essay on Man, in which the assertion means that man's limited viewpoint can

not fully understand God's: according to Pope, what seems natural to us,

perhaps even disorderly, is actually carefully planned by an intelligence much

higher than ours.  Nature, that which seems "natural," probably even

inevitable, is actually a work of art created by God the artist.  And if this

is the best of all possible worlds, full in its dinvely made plenitude, then

the natural and the divine must be the same.  When we see the universe from

our limited viewpoint, we see a lack of coherent order.  However, from God's

point of view the universe is a unified work of art.  Since man can never see

from God's point of view, he can never fully understand the artistry in its

wholeness.  He must take the order of the universe on faith.  But he can

approximate or perhaps simulate an understanding of God's artistic wholeness

by allowing his mind to entertain the existence of the coincidence of

opposites.  If he denies the coincidence of opposites, then he denies the

possibility that God has created a work of art in the universe, for

disqualifying the coincidence of opposites disqualifies the universe from


7

being coherent.  Nature, which can seem incoherent, disorderly, and even

hostile to man, must be accepted as coherent, orderly, and congenial to man's

higher purposes.  Pope reconciles the traditional contraries of Nature and Art

by insisting that man humble his reason to accept logical absurdities.

    Although Blake's purposes in using the coincidence of opposites are quite

different from Pope's, the motto "All Nature is but Art" can similarly

epitomize his idea: what appears to us "given" and therefore natural is

actually created, by man and his God working as one.  At his most vehement,

Blake condemns all unthinking ideology as grossly mistaken; in "London" in

Songs of Experience the "mind-forged manacles," metaphorically created by the

blacksmithing destructiveness of social consensus, bind us all without our

knowledge or understanding.  However, as always in Blake, the idea that "All

Nature is but Art" contains its redeeming contrary as well: what appears to be

natural is actually created by us, the Divine Humanity.  Therefore, we need

not simply accept and succumb to Nature, whether exhibited in the mores of

society or in the stars of the heavens; we can, and must, create existence in

each moment.

    Many critics, implicitly or explicitly, dismiss any coincidence of

opposites out of hand.  The most extreme kind of dismissal comes from Morton

Paley: in number two of his five principles of interpretation for Blake's

illuminations in Jerusalem he declares,

 

    Interpretations according to which mutually exclusive meanings are seen

    as equally valid are not likely to be helpful.  We should remember

    Blake's love of the definite.  <12>  

   

Paley's correct admonition--remember Blake's love of the definite--belies his

advice.  Love of the definite is the best way of achieving a vision of the

coincidence of opposites.  Only abstract reason denies that opposites co-

exist.  Living in definite minute particulars, which make up the impossible

improbabilites of every moment's existence, could not happen if our rational

minds stayed on guard to exclude acceptance of the coincidence of opposites.

    Whether or not binary thinking is inescapably fundamental to human

thought, Blake thought it was necessary to human existence, and if anyone has

escaped its grasp (and I doubt that anyone has yet), the writers I study here,

and of course I myself, are still inextricably caught in its grasp. 

Throughout this book I hope to show the productive contraries that can arise

from binary thinking as Alexander Pope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley,

Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake struggle to conceive of and articulate

a world that seems to tear itself apart in oppositions, oppositions that must

coincide.  Because without the extreme of total unity, we float isolated in

the void; and without the extreme of complete individuality, we cluster

indistinguishably in an amorphous lump.  Both extremes are necessary to

existence.

 


 

 

Notes to Introduction

 

1.  "1663 Butler Iliad 1.1.726  'For where the first does hap to be, The last

does coincidere.'"

 

2. Indeed, in my natal chart, Venus and Mars are in conjunction, within 1.5

degrees of each other.  I remember an astrologer telling me that such a

conjunction of opposing forces creates a "short circuit."  Occasionally I

still meditate on how to convert those opposing forces into dynamic

reciprocity.

 

3. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, E40.  All quotations of Blake are taken

from William Blake, Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Ed. David V.

Erdman (Doubleday, 1982).  "E" with a number indicates the page in that

edition. 

 

4. J. Hillis Miller, "The Critic as Host," in Deconstruction and Criticism,

ed. Harold Bloom (NY: Seabury Press, 1979), p. 252.

 

5.  Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1983),

pp. 1, 2.

 

6. Romanticism and Gender (NY: Routledge, 1993), p. 3.

 

7. Mellor, Gender, p. 4.

 

8. W. J. T. Mitchell, "Visible Language: Blake's Wond'rous Art of Writing," in

Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism, eds. Morris Eaves and Michael Fischer

(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986), p. 90.

 

9. Stephen Behrendt, Reading William Blake (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1992), p.

6.

 

10. Behrendt, Reading, p. 5.

 

11. "Descriptive Catalogue," E543.

 

12. The Continuing City (         p. 118.