British Academy, September 2006
When I was little I thought it grossly unfair, that a horse that threw its jockey and then galloped home in front of the pack, was not declared the winner. It made me angry to see the horse and jockey who came second, or sometimes even third, applauded while the real winner of the race was ignored.
My interest in the prose of Samuel Taylor Coleridge stems from reading a few extracts from “The Statesman’s Manual” which included the definition of a symbol as that which “always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible: and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity, of which it is the representative” and the phrase “the mind of man in its primary and constitutional forms represents the laws of nature.”
At the time I was reading “Consciousness” by Torino and Edelman, which looks at the heritable structures and processes of consciousness within – inevitably – a Darwinian framework.
Since I was painting pictures of nature, the inclusion of such “heritable structures” within the symbol of nature helped me to focus on and enrich sensation and Coleridge’s definition of a symbol – in some obscure way – helped me to become less self conscious about doing this.
In describing our higher consciousness as built on (and into) the primary consciousness that we share with animals, Torino and Edelman buttressed – ironically enough, given Coleridge’s historic position in relation to Darwinism – Coleridge’s theorising.
In describing the role of emotion as “fundamental both to the origins of and the appetite for conscious thought.” – and the way in which emotion triggers memory and propels our ability to perceive, create and select patterns within the teeming galaxy of sensory information that floods our minds, Torino and Edelman slipped easily into the flow of Coleridgean prose that I had discovered.
Since the term “primary consciousness” does not describe an inferior type of superseded intelligence but a process capable of development, growth and refinement. And since both in terms of evolutionary history and every day processes, this primary consciousness, this selective intelligence, stands prior to logic and language; the Romantic’s definition of the self and its relationship with Nature – linked with the emphasis on sensation – becomes more recognisable within a contemporary context.
Of course, as someone lacking specialised knowledge, who when reading science or literature, inhabits a world of ink blots, such musings have no particular importance. However, it is possible to imagine a time when Darwinism, now linked in the popular imagination with the mechanistic model of the universe that Coleridge so distrusted, stands alongside Coleridge, sentinels guarding the organic nature of the universe against the reductive imposition of mechanical form.
When I was little I liked science. I asked for microscopes and chemistry sets for Christmas. By the time adolescence kicked in, my interest only came in fits and starts.
I remember one physics lesson on a warm drowsy summer’s afternoon, drifting upon the collective stupefaction of my classmates and waiting for the lesson to end. After some particularly boring experiments with springs, the teacher placed a weight on the table and asked us all why the weight stayed where it was; why it didn’t fall through the table top and onto the floor.
Since I hadn’t been paying attention, I looked down at my feet to avoid his eye and saw, to my astonishment, the floor pushing up at the point where it met the downward pressure exerted by the end of my chair leg. The world was instantaneously transformed. Every object became “springy,” exerting forces that produced, to use my teacher’s subsequent felicitous phrase, “an equal and opposite reaction” in every other object that they touched.
Space suddenly materialised within the classroom and came alive, threaded by a golden net of connecting energies. My heart galloped.