Approaching the Glade

At the beginning of their book “Consciousness: How Matter becomes Imagination” Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi set out a few principles which inform any scientific examination of consciousness. They emphasise that “no scientific description or explanation can substitute for the real thing.” They use the example of a hurricane: “nobody expects that a scientific description of a hurricane will be or cause a hurricane.”

They then go onto examine the special problem of consciousness “Unlike any other object of scientific description, the neural process we are attempting to characterise when we study the neural basis of consciousness actually refers to ourselves – it is ourselves – conscious observers. We cannot therefore tacitly remove ourselves as conscious observers as we do when we investigate other scientific domains.”

And also “The physicist Schrodinger once put it this way: No scientific theory itself contains sensations and perceptions. As the evolutionary assumption reminds us, not only is it impossible to generate being by mere describing, but, in the proper order of things, being precedes describing both ontologically and chronologically.”

Visual art is about sensations and perceptions – this document about the visual arts takes as a starting point, the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the principle philosopher of the English Romantic movement, a movement which stands or falls on the primacy of sensation. Any quasi-scientific language or putative objective stance within such a context should recall not only my opening paragraph but also George Eliot’s remark in a letter to Frederic Harrison, that aesthetic teaching becomes offensive “if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram.” 

My interest in Coleridge stemmed directly from experience. In order to paint well, I have to experience the world in a precise and particular fashion. I am not necessarily in that state while I am painting, but experiences of that state are the touch stone for all that I produce.  An extraordinary property (perhaps the most extraordinary property) of this particular mode of consciousness is that it is so easy to forget. The complete extinction of memory covers not only the nature of this mode of consciousness but also the fact that it ever occurred.

It is as if I were to marry in the afternoon and walk past my wife in the evening without recognising her. 

By focussing on Coleridge’s work, I created a path that lead in the general direction of this mode of consciousness; an aide- memoire. The subsequent literary and philosophical investigations which this document records were not lead by an interest in accepting or creating a coherent system of thought through the application of logic, but by the desire to beat down (and to remember to beat down) with whatever tools I could lay my hands on, a path through the dark and tangled forest to the edge of a glade brimming with forgotten sunshine. 


I was bought up on an “overspill” estate in Andover. When I was in my early teens I liked the pictures of Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash, William Blake and other artists who I knew were categorised as English Romantics. I didn’t know why the label had been applied and it didn’t bother me. I drew the great banks of chalk formed by the construction of our ring road as if they were the ramparts of Iron Age hill forts and the concrete pillars of the underpass gave me a chance to pastiche Nash’s paintings of megaliths.

As I began to find out more about art I consigned these drawings to immaturity – and by the time I got to the Slade in 1977, I didn’t think that English Romanticism had any influence on my paintings. When I dropped out of art school at the end of my third year (in part, due to an ideological objection to the requirement to submit written work), I moved to a remote hamlet where I supported myself by working on the land.

Since I distrusted the values that I had encountered at the Slade, I wanted to establish my own criteria for making work so I studied my own reaction to different relationships of form and colour.

At the time I was obsessed by the work of Frans Hals which I contrasted with the paintings of Rembrandt. Rembrandt constructs a universe within his pictures that is entered with ease but difficult to leave. The sensation when entering his paintings is one of transfusion, consciousness appears to meld with Rembrandt’s liquid space.

Any attempt to enter the work of Frans Hals in a similar fashion is rebuffed by a karate chop from the cascading vectors of his brushwork. A filtration process is at work, some energies are drawn in, some reflected. The reflected energy awakens the spectator into his or her unique present which contains both the picture in question and the immediate environment.

I attempted to duplicate the methodology of Hals. If one set of shapes and colours released me into the world – if I became aware of the space around me, and the air in that space, those colours were acceptable. If the form and colour began to draw me into a pictorial space that eclipsed the world around me, I altered the picture.  In retrospect, while my attitude towards Rembrandt had little to recommend it, the appeal of pictures which awakened me into the world in which I was already living marked the beginning of a my practice.  

I began to paint landscapes, which I exhibited in one-man shows in the village hall. I hoped that the grind of physical labour would dilute the sentimentality that I associated with the Romantic pastoral tradition (I found it hard to eliminate this association from my work). After a day of cutting wood, I lay down with the feeling of the cut wood in my flesh. After a day of digging through clay and stone I could almost feel the soil running out of my fingertips as I sat in my armchair. Such sensations guided me after I picked up my paint brush. 

 For 15 years or so I painted the landscape of a very small area circumscribed by my ability to walk from my house (laden with painting gear). 

People occasionally told me my work was romantic. I knew what they meant but (incredibly) placed my work in opposition to that legacy. After about 15 years or so, accompanied by a vague sense of failure, I drifted into showing work outside my immediate locality, re-engaged with the visual arts sector and began to obtain part time jobs in arts administration.

In 2005 I was working three days a week for Arts Council England.

An e-mail came round with a draft document which laid down the three ways in which we should assess the quality of any given work of art – before or after its construction.

Firstly, according to the document, we should look at the quality of the idea, then look at how well that idea had been or would be carried out and finally consider the likely impact of the work on an audience.

As was often the case during my time at Arts Council, I had objections to the presumptions that informed this document. I began to write an essay which I had no intention of presenting but which I could translate into acceptable managerial language complete with bullet points. 

At the time I was reading a lot of consciousness theory – so I began my private essay by quoting from “Consciousness: How Matter becomes imagination” by Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi

“…during learning and in many matters of human comprehension, doing generally precedes understanding. This is one of the great insights derived from studies of animal learning (animals can solve problems that they certainly do not understand logically), from pschophysiological studies of normal human subjects and those with certain kinds of frontal lesions (we choose the right strategy before we understand why), from studies of artificial grammar (we use a rule before we understand what it is); and finally in innumerable studies of cognitive development (we learn how to speak before we know anything about syntax). “

Many of the grants for individuals Arts Council England administered were meant to assist in the development of practice so I wanted to remove the tendency to demand that applicants knew their route and destination prior to arrival. This tendency would be re-enforced if an idea (rather than an emotion or inarticulate impulse) was presumed to precede the act of making. 

I moved on from the consequences of sequencing, to the consequences of separating the idea and its realisation. In my opinion, some of the dullest work funded by Arts Council England came about when an idea sold the work to funders – and that idea was simply given a visual form using the money which was allocated. 

I remembered reading, in a compendium of English literature, a distinction that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had made between symbol and allegory so I re-read and transcribed it. 

Allegory (for Coleridge) consisted merely of ideas translated into a pictorial language (which seemed to describe dull work) whereas a symbol 

“always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part of that Unity, of which it is the representative.” (1) 

While this quote sprang from Coleridge’s definition of the status of the New Testament, it could equally be applied to the difference (for instance) between an emotion’s description and an embodied emotion, between a scientific description of a hurricane and the real thing.

I began to read a lot more Coleridge. I found the range of his interests stimulating. In addition, Coleridge, apparently, was the man who was chiefly responsible for laying down the philosophical basis for English Romanticism. So by reading him I could start, after all those years, to find out what the word “Romantic” actually meant.

I managed to get the wording of the document changed (this made no practical difference whatsoever), but the real consequence of my reading was an immersion in a world with which I thought I was familiar but about which, it turned out, I knew very little. 


While people argue about the timing of the genesis of the English Romantic Movement – a generally accepted and convenient date is the publication of “Lyrical Ballads” 1798.

This collection of poetry was put together by two young poets, William Wordsworth (1770 –1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 –1834) during a two year stay in the Quantocks. 

The common perception of English romanticism today conflates Wordsworth and his daffodils with the English country side and the intrinsic virtue of NATURE.

“Lyrical ballads” contains verse that supports such sentiments.

Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” is a reply to a fictional friend who urges him to spend more time reading and studying

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can. 

Sweet is the lore which nature brings,
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things ;
—We murder to dissect.”

Wordsworth gives Nature a positive moral force which is placed in opposition to the intellect.

Such sentiments had a political context.

Coleridge and Wordsworth had both expressed support for the French Revolution. The idealism of the French Revolution can be interpreted as an appeal to rationality underpinned by a belief in the innate goodness of mankind. If society is rational then man’s natural state will shine through – uncorrupted and benevolent. This equation of Nature with egalitarianism meant that professing a love of Nature could indicate revolutionary sympathies. A measure of this link between nature and revolution is to be found in the fact that when it was discovered that Wordsworth and Coleridge had gone to live in the Somerset country side, a Home Office agent was dispatched to report on their activities. A suspicion grew that they were plotting the navigation routes along the Bristol Channel that would assist the French Fleet in their invasion of Great Britain.

The reports are still on record.

“The man has camp stools, which he and his visitors take with them when they go about the country…. And have also a Portfolio in which they enter their observations, which they have been heard to say were almost finished.  They have been heard to say that they should be rewarded for them and were very attentive to the River…”

 (Coleridge and Wordsworth were actually attempting to write poetry in much the same way as a painter might sketch the landscape) 

And both had gone into the countryside not in order to continue their support for the French but because they had become disillusioned with the Revolution and the course it had taken. They wished to salvage noble ideals – equality, freedom and brotherhood from the wreckage of their hopes and to discover why and how those ideals had been corrupted.

“Liberty, which nor ever didst breathe thy soul in forms of human power” (2) was found and sustained not via political engagement but by the admission of the natural world into the human psyche. Coleridge hoped to salvage ideals tainted by bloodshed, through poetry: laying deeper foundations on which to build permanent change.

After a couple of years in the Quantocks, Coleridge and Wordsworth both departed for Germany, which was at the time, the intellectual powerhouse of Europe. While Wordsworth used his time in Germany to concentrate on his poetry, Coleridge threw himself into academia. This period proved to be critical for Coleridge. Although he did not know it, his best poetry was behind him. His legacy from now on would rest on his philosophy and critical writing so that although today, he is remembered for his early poetry, such as Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner, Frost at Midnight and Christabel, at the time of his death he was regarded as a philosopher. J.S Mill described him as “one of the two great seminal minds of England in their age” (the other was Jeremy Bentham) (3)

There is a great deal of argument as to how much of his thought was original or whether he should be thought of as the means by which the work of German philosophers was introduced into English culture. However, for the moment let us take his work at face value – that on reading Schelling (for example) he “found a genial coincidence with much that I had toiled out for myself” (4) rather than simply plagiarising it.

One of Coleridge’s most discussed distinctions is between imagination and fancy.

“The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealise and unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” (5)

“Imagination” is located in relation to the romantic axiom that the term “Nature” refers not only to the external world but the human body and thus the natural process by which consciousness is generated.  Within Coleridge’s definition of the Primary Imagination we can recognise (among other capacities) the process by which we select from and knit together the millions of pieces of separate information we receive every second – colours, sounds, smell and touch – and how we pattern this information via memory and emotion in order to become conscious.  

The distinctions we make between one man’s intelligence and another’s when viewed in relation to such extraordinarily complex activity are trivial in comparison. Coleridge’s “Imagination” is an essentially egalitarian concept. 

The main difference between the primary and secondary imagination – apart from the degree and mode of operation, is the fact that the secondary imagination co-exists with the conscious will. 

“Fancy” is wholly a product of the conscious will. 

Coleridge was responsible for a myth that has helped to define the romantic relationship between the conscious will and the imagination. Nearly 20 years after “Kubla Khan” was written, Coleridge published his poem with a preface explaining the circumstances in which it had been produced. He claimed that the poem had come to him, complete, in an opium induced trance and that he had begun to write it down when he was interrupted by the “person from Porlock.”  When Coleridge took up his pen after his visitor’s departure he could remember nothing of his epic poem so only the beginning, a fragment, remained.

Leaving aside the generally disastrous consequences of the use of this preface to justify making art under the influence of a drug, Coleridge’s preface begs the question as to whether the act of creation necessarily involves the conscious will at all.

While I realise that at this juncture, the following quote is simply a clumsy slight of hand inspired by the use of the word “primary”, I introduce it now to give a context for what follows, but leave it for the present as a parenthesis: 

“Primary consciousness – the ability to generate a mental scene in which a large amount of diverse information is integrated for the purpose of directing present or immediate behaviour – occurs in animals with brain structures similar to ours. Such animals appear able to construct a mental scene but unlike us, have limited semantic or symbolic capabilities and no true language.  Higher–order consciousness is built on the foundations provided by primary consciousness and is accompanied by a sense of self and the ability in the waking state explicitly to construct and connect past and futures scenes.”

Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi

Consciousness: How Matter becomes imagination 

Following a period where I worked from Coleridge’s writing – it was the relationship between the conscious will and the act of creation that preoccupied me. 

Shortly after I had organised a festival devoted to the work of Coleridge I had the opportunity to work with North Devon museums.

I had met the director who complained about the impossibility of both displaying and making people interested in certain parts of their collection. She cited a huge collection of dried seaweed collected in the 1840’s.

I was interested enough to make an appointment to study the seaweed and then found out that the novelist George Eliot had visited North Devon in order to gather seaweed. At that time she was still known as Marian Evans but had begun to write novels under the name of “George Eliot” shortly after her stay. She was assisting her partner, George Lewes, in writing a book about the marine life of North Devon.

A project grew out of this discovery which allowed me to pursue my interest in Romanticism.

Eliot came down to North Devon due to a popular work on marine biology “A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devon Coast” by Philip Gosse. Gosse has been described by the evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould as “The David Attenborough of his day” and his book sparked a craze for marine biology throughout Victorian Britain. Lewes wanted to jump onto the bandwagon and since Gosse had made Ilfracombe the focus of his investigations, it was natural that Lewes and Eliot should make the town their first port of call.

Philip Gosse is now principally known through his “Omphalos” theory, which he developed in response to the forthcoming publication of Darwin’s “Origen of Species”. Gosse knew Darwin, had helped him conduct experiments and was aware not only of Darwin’s work on evolution, but also the alternative evolutionary theories which were common currency at the time. Such theories were spawned by a growing body of geological evidence which cast doubt on the account of creation provided by the book of Genesis. Gosse was a good enough scientist to know that the attempts by Christians to combat such theories by reconciling geology with the Biblical account  via a description of the disruptive effects of volcanic activity and disasters such as the Great Flood (which could wipe out dinosaurs and create layer upon layer of strata) were complete nonsense.

Gosse’s theory (which was published shortly after George Eliot’s visit to North Devon), is the only way in which scientific data, both Victorian and contemporary, can be reconciled with Genesis. Gosse stated that God created the world as described in Genesis but simultaneously created a past that was scientifically coherent. Therefore, evidence of this “virtual” past would have been found in Eden. Accepting a picture of Eden as filled with adult flora and fauna, Gosse brings his considerable expertise to bear on demonstrating how an adult life form contains evidence of its  own growth. So a tree for example, has growth rings from which one can ascertain climactic change. Therefore Gosse deduces, that there must have been a virtual climate, and the effects of that virtual climate would be consistently revealed within the growth patterns of all the other organisms that inhabited Eden. This virtual past, being scientifically coherent and stretching back billions of years from the time of Eden’s creation, can be studied as if it actually happened.

In crucial passages of his book he asks whether it is possible for us to know whether or not the world was created yesterday. 

Borges was interested enough in Gosse to write an essay on the “Omphalos” theory as part of a collection whose central theme is the refutation of time (6). Elsewhere in the collection Borges quotes Buddhist texts that say that the world is annihilated and resurges again 6,500,000,000 times a day.

Gosse’s “evidence” for the instantaneous creation of all life at a particular moment is only found in Genesis, but of greater interest is his acceptance of the principle of instantaneous creation of past and present, irrespective of the historical account provided by the Old Testament. 

Gosse believed that the apocalypse would happen within his life time. He, along with fellow believers would become immortal and live in this world for evermore, a world transformed back into Eden.

This belief informed the passionate sensuality of his writing.

He can jump from precise descriptions of the digestive processes of a jelly fish to ecstatic passages where he puts forward a relationship between God and Nature that verges on the heretical.
“Is it not an end worthy of a Being infinitely wise and good, that He has stocked every nook and corner of his world, even to overflowing, with sentient existences, capable of pleasure, and actually enjoying it to the full, hour by hour and day by day?  It is sin alone that is the cause of suffering; and though as a whole the domain of man partook of the lapse of its federal head and lord, and so “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together until now,”…. we may suppose that at least the invertebrate portions of the animal creation suffer their share of the fall rather corporately than individually, rather nominally, in dignity, than consciously, in pain or want .. at that glorious “manifestation of the sons of God,” when creation shall be more than reinstated in primal honour, and shall be permanently established ..  even these low-born atoms of almost unseen and unsuspected life, shall in some way or other, get an augmentation of happiness, and thus take their humble share in the blessing of the redeemed inheritance.” 
Ch V111 A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast – P.H. Gosse 1853

I would argue that Gosse’s vision of both creation and apocalypse can be viewed in the light of Edelman and Tononi’s “primary consciousness”. 

“Higher–order consciousness is built on the foundations provided by primary consciousness and is accompanied by a sense of self and the ability in the waking state explicitly to construct and connect past and futures scenes.”

The eternal present that is the lot, as far as we can tell, of an animal with highly complex consciousness, precludes the sense of self and therefore a concept of past or future. This state is close to Gosse’s vision of paradise. At one point Gosse describes paradise by way of corals, where numerous separate life forms form one organism, a vision of the individual believers coming together to form a greater whole via the destruction of a sense of self. And it is important to stress, this paradise is the earth which we now inhabit.

If Gosse is presented as an artist his work becomes valid. His writing and illustration of the natural world, underpinned by the “Omphalos” theory is a sensualist’s tapestry of fact and emotion. Stephen Jay Gould can actually use Gosse’s theory to elucidate the difference between science and other disciplines (science is not a compendium of certain knowledge but a procedure for testing and rejecting hypothesis – “Omphalos” being a supreme example of an untestable hypothesis.)

And from a phenomenological point of view, that the world only existed when there was a human being able to experience it, and so the world that existed prior to consciousness appeared simultaneously, is a position that is less open to ridicule from received wisdom than the religious fundamentalism which Gosse espoused. 

At first glance “George Eliot” represents the complete antithesis of Gosse. Her interest in Darwinism had been informed by a period where she edited the Westminster review which took articles from the foremost scientists of the day. Before meeting Lewes she had had a relationship with Herbert Spencer (the man who coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest) and throughout her career she took a lively interest in scientific debate. Following a period of intense evangelism in her youth she had rejected extremities of faith and had translated works of German theology which approached the life of Christ as a historical phenomenon. Her sophisticated aesthetic was influenced by an admiration of Ruskin and her study of German philosophy, Lessing in particular. Lessing’s writing around a remark of Horace “Ut pictura poesis” (As is  HYPERLINK “” \o “Painting” painting so is  HYPERLINK “” \o “Poetry” poetry) was helpful. Ruskin developed this dictum laying emphasis on the relationship between painting and feeling.

Eliot’s emphasis on the power and qualities of images, on an appeal to the senses, is central to her aesthetic. In a letter to Frederic Harrison, she says that aesthetic teaching becomes offensive “if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram.”

The purpose of the image is to promote empathy

“appeals founded on generalisations and statistics require a sympathy ready made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment….. when Wordsworth sings to us ….. more is done towards obliterating the vulgarity of exclusiveness, than by hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations.”(7)

An image is neither a fact nor an abstraction. In order for an image to form in the reader’s mind, the reader must use their imagination. Imagination is not an analytic or a logical faculty. “It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealise and unify”(8)

When Eliot and her contemporaries appeal to the senses, they evoke the Romantic legacy. The senses are not defined merely as devices for gathering information but part of a world of emotion and feeling – a sensibility. Hazlitt’s distinction between romantic and classical painting is worth remembering. Romantic painting has “gusto”, that is to say that the visual evokes other senses, touch and sound, whereas classical painting distils the visual from the other senses. Whether or not this distinction is valid in terms of the problematic division between romantic and classical painting, it does highlight the ability of the information garnered by one sense, to inspire other senses. I will come back to this property later.

Eliot’s belief in the power of images does not blind her to the ego’s capacity to project crude meanings and patterns that are delusory.
“Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection.  These things are a parable.”
George Eliot Ch XXV11 Middlemarch 1872

Science has a critical role to play in Eliot’s universe, not only as a vehicle for perception but crucially, as a means of identifying error and refining discrimination.  

While Romanticism developed into the cult of the individual, the artist’s feelings and sensibility out weighing all other considerations, it is arguable that George Eliot was the true heir of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She remarked of Silas Marner (which she closes with lines from Wordsworth) that she “should not have believed that any one would have been interested in [the novel] but myself (since William Wordsworth is dead).” (9)

Within the narrative structure of the novel she is able to shuttle back and forth between different forms. She combines imagery, which engages the senses and provokes sympathy, with a multiplicity of literary devices that not only give pleasure but also draw the reader’s attention to the category of the information on offer.

She avoids the great Romantic trap which leads artists to lead “natural”, instinctive lives self consciously. Wilde, at the end of the century was the great debunker of such tendencies. On reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his voyage to Samoa in order to find a “natural” life untainted by civilisation he remarked, fairly enough, that he was leading a far more natural life sitting in a Paris café than Stevenson self consciously chopping wood with the natives.

When I was making work for this project, I became painfully aware of the associations of the simplified forms that I had been working with. To make work around events that occurred during the 1850’s using forms which had links to 20th century modernism seemed an absurdity. So I allowed the work to be influenced by Gosse’s own biological drawings and Victorian figuration.

Once the project was over I was free to move back into my previous research. George Eliot remained a corrective figure in relation to the temptation to yield to the anti-intellectual dynamic that exists within Romanticism. 

Due to the way that the Victorian project had highlighted the 20th century nature of my influences, I made a greater effort to recognise the influence of modernism on my work. 

Modernism is a broad category but looking at the painters who in the first part of the 20th Century are viewed as its principal representatives, Braque, Picasso and Matisse, we see that far from representing a Utopian sensibility (10) which looked to the future (the current fashion is to make Modernism synonymous with Utopianism) they were concerned with the present; moving towards a more direct appeal to the senses.

Picasso states explicitly that if a work of art cannot live always in the present then it must not be considered at all. 

They (Braque, Picasso and Matisse) recognised that the flat surface of the canvas is an object that calls forth from the senses an immediate response as being the flat surface of a canvas. Any attempt to make this surface a transparent opening into a world given depth by perspective, runs the risk of losing the immediacy of our first perception of the canvas as an object which is within arms length. Braque’s emphasis on the tactile qualities of his work – through the addition of sand, Matisse’s insistence of the virtue of non-illusionist colour, Picasso and Braque’s use of the papier colle, pasting wallpaper or newspapers onto their canvas etc., were all predicated on establishing an immediacy of response from the viewer.  

This immediacy was necessary if the work was to return the spectator to his or her unique present.


Despite the literacy and intellect of its principle exponents, a distrust of the intellect remained a constant feature of the legacy of the developments in painting during the earlier part of the 20th Century. Matisse’s injunction to his students that to be a painter you must first tear out your tongue sits uneasily beside his voluminous writings.

Dispensing with figuration is a logical extension of a viewpoint that holds fast to the idea that shape and colour on a flat surface will by-pass the intellect. Figuration of any kind interposes a meaning that engages the intellect and thus reduces the immediacy of the work. It is arguable that this position reached its apogee in New York during the 50’s. However, the tensions between this appeal to an innate sense of form and colour (De Kooning’s “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds”) and the ferocious intellectual context created by Greenburg, Rosenberg et al  was ultimately unsustainable. 

In England, between the wars, an explicit link between Coleridge and Modernism was forged by Herbert Reed. Reed wrote extensively about Wordsworth and Coleridge and saw the connection between their work and that of the contemporary artists who he championed. So Coleridge’s distinction between mechanical and organic form (mechanical form is predetermined and subsequently impressed on whatever material we choose whereas organic form shapes as it develops itself from within) formed the basis of Read’s doctrine of “truth to materials” which particularly informed his writing on the work of Henry Moore. In addition, the exhibition of the work of Samuel Palmer at the V&A’s in the 1920’s and the intense interest in William Blake’s poetry and printing assisted in the development of a distinctly Romantic approach to Modernism throughout Great Britain.

Coleridge was a means by which the legacy of German Transcendental Idealism was incorporated into British culture; on the continent there was no need to approach this legacy via an intermediary (all his ideas thus far described have their counterpart in German philosophy). 

While Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is the accepted founder of the doctrine, if the lines of enquiry, sparked by Coleridge are to be pursued, a more convenient figure to examine is the contemporary philosopher in whom Coleridge “found a genial coincidence with much that I had toiled out for myself”, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling(1775 -1854). 

Thus far I have managed to blur a personal, contingent progression with a historical timeline. My selection of Schelling can be compared to the action of someone who has beaten down a path through the undergrowth and is now retracing his steps to ensure that the track is trodden down. A retrogression is appropriate in the light of Schelling’s critique of the west’s conception of time. 

Schelling ascribed some of the difficulties of the artist to the influence of Christianity on our concept of time. He compares Greek mythology, where the infinite is synthesised with the finite, with the unique position of Christ who is historically situated and who represents a unique synthesis and therefore gateway, between the infinite and finite. While purporting to heal this schism, Christianity simultaneously creates it. The finite begins to stand as an allegory through which the infinite might be understood (and entered after time and death) rather than its embodiment. 

The task of the artist is more difficult in an allegorical culture where the interpretation of the work, the attempt to decipher the signs that it contains, distracts the spectator from its embodied qualities.

Schelling is consistently suspicious of progression. Hegel’s proposition that the emergence of absolute spirit entails the disappearance of art is viewed as symptomatic of the false schism that Christianity has unwittingly created. Art, for Schelling, is the great synthesis of what appear to be opposites, freedom/necessity, conscious/unconscious, knowledge/action, finite/infinite etc. (Hegel’s dismissal of Schelling’s picture of a unified cosmos as “the night in which all cows are black” has retained its critical bite)

Schelling’s view of western culture is that it is defined by a historical sense of time; this is a finite world where only actions in time can allow the finite to pass into the infinite. (We are trapped by time and must seek to escape it). Schelling characterised this condition as an estrangement. Unlike Hegel who saw self projection via alienation as the foundation of a mature self consciousness, which forms a staging post in the evolution of the spirit, Schelling’s “estrangement” is not an evolutionary phase. For Schelling, the Greeks were no less advanced than his contemporaries.

And Art, far from being a staging post in the development of humanity, is posited as the model to which philosophy must aspire. 

“the relationship between the individual parts in the closed, organic whole of philosophy resemble that between the various figures in a perfectly constructed poetic work, where every figure, by being part of the whole, as a perfect reflex of that whole is actually absolute and independent in its turn” (11)

The lines suggest Coleridge’s definition of the symbol which “always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part of that Unity, of which it is the representative.” 

While Coleridge was able to utilise much of Schelling’s thought, he found some of the results of Schelling’s refusal to establish hierarchies (such as the value of mind/spirit over nature) hard to stomach. Such absences lead Schelling to attempt a “natural” explanation of Freedom which links it with evil in a self sustaining polarity, which is in turn a kind of rupture within God (albeit a rupture in the sense of the creation of polarity rather than true schism). Coleridge completely rejected such a standpoint. His definition of the difference between allegory and symbol was in the context of a discussion around the status of the testaments. Coleridge accepts Schelling’s diagnosis of the adverse effects of the “allegorical” approach but refuses the link with Christianity, instead placing the testaments within the category of art and thus falling within Schelling’s definition of a “perfectly constructed poetic work, where every figure, by being part of the whole, as a perfect reflex of that whole is actually absolute and independent in its turn”.

For Schelling, the absence of hierarchy allows the concepts of Nature and Mind to be pretty much interchangeable.

Nature/mind is a producer, it produces objects. However, the relationship between object and Nature/mind is that of an eddy to a stream. The eddy is caused by a temporary resistance to the flow; however the eddy is part of the stream, the stream flows through it.

Coleridge’s distinction between primary and secondary imagination might derive from Schelling’s distinction between the productive intuition and the poetic faculty.

“The poetic faculty is what in the first potency is original intuition, and vice versa: the productive intuition which repeats itself in the first power is what we call the poetic faculty. What is active in both is one and the same, the only faculty by which we become capable of thinking and understanding even the contradictory, the imagination.” (12)

The productive intuition produces the world as it actually is; this is essentially a creative process of Nature/mind. The poetic faculty (in Coleridgean terms, the secondary imagination) is a recreation of materials already acquired through perception. However, this faculty is a repetition of the productive intuition. Coleridge’s secondary imagination struggles to unify, Schelling’s poetic faculty can think and understand the contradictory. 

In the period following his death, Schelling’s work fell out of favour. However, Schelling’s insistence on the primacy of perception was resurrected in the 20th century via Husserl (1859 – 1938). Husserl’s concept of  Lebenswelt  (The world “as lived” prior to   reflective representation or analysis) became the foundation for the discipline of phenomenology. Merleau Ponty (1908 – 1961) who developed Husserl’s thesis described Schelling thus,

“.. how do we represent the sense that permeates living beings but is not thought as a sense should be? If Schelling seeks to “think” this natural production, the concern for him is in no way to explain it, because explanation would be to miss it, would lead existence back to essence, interior productivity back to exterior production. He has to “live and feel” it.

But Schelling does not want to appeal to a mystical faculty specialised in this role. What Schelling means is that we rediscover Nature in our perceptual experience prior to reflection.

Our perception is probably no longer altogether a natural exercise, having been perverted by reflection. It no longer gives us the things, but rather an envelope, similar to a cocoon left behind by the butterfly when it emerges from its chrysalis. In order to retrieve the meaning of external nature, we have to make an effort to retrieve our own nature in the state of indivision where we exercise our perception.” (13)

Merleau Ponty developed Husserl’s Lebenswelt into the concept of the world’s “flesh” as “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break…” (14)

In his essay “The Intertwining – The Chiasm” while careful not to suggest that “grammar and linguistics and “the ideas of intelligence” – which are acquired, available, honorary ideas – are useless,” Merleau Ponty compares such ideas with a simple musical notation. What is the relationship between the notation and a unique rendition; the event of sound? 

And just as the body can only see because it is part of the visible world, the sense of hearing which receives an arrangement of sounds “reflects back upon that arrangement”. 

During speech, the act of signification closes the multiplicity of the “physical, physiological, linguistic means of elocution”, however, speech itself is an opening up to the “universal Word”. 

The fact that we are part of what we perceive; we can only see because we are visible, only feel touch because we can be touched, suggests the participative nature of perception.  While signification can corral an object of science from speech, and this object can be given notation, Merleau Ponty, through concentrating on oral (as opposed to written) language, not only resists the exclusivity of such annexation but via the participative nature of perception and the senses, places spoken language within the natural world. 

Where science is concerned, the removal of the subjective experience is the basis of its methodology and facilitates notation.

However the return of that subjective experience, into the great, dizzying cathedral that science has built is a transformative experience. The comparison between a violinist interpreting a score and producing a unique performance and the individual engaged in understanding a scientific equation is a reasonable one to make.(15) (16)

When Schelling says that “Nature is the first or old testament….Man is the beginning of the new covenant through which as mediator, since he is himself tied to God, God….also accepts nature and makes it into himself” (17) he is describing an aspect of this transformative experience.

Coleridge, Schelling and Merleau Ponty are often linked with animism. Schelling believed that all of nature is alive and directed towards consciousness. Coleridge’s “The Aeolian Harp” contains the lines

“And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic Harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the Soul of each, and God of all?”

In Merleau-Ponty’s “The Visible and Invisible” his concept of the world’s “flesh” signifies both the flesh of the body and the flesh of the world in order to describe the reciprocal nature of the sentient and the sensible. The statement that when we touch something we feel ourselves being touched is not a misuse of the active and passive voice, but an accurate description of an event.

In discussing the importance of gesture, Merleau Ponty states that 

“it is the body which points out and which speaks …this disclosure (of the body’s immanent expressiveness)… extends, as we shall see, to the whole sensible world, and our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other “objects” the miracle of expression” (18) 

Such “animism” should not be taken as the consequence of accepting that how we perceive nature is dependant on natural structures within mind/body or that from the “scientific” standpoint, such perceived animation is a projection. 

We can say that this jagged rock or that round boulder is inanimate. From the information that our senses gather we can both bring to bear the results of our abstract learning and place the rock or the boulder within the inanimate category or corral. However, the nature of the senses means that we require abstract learning in order to bring about this categorisation. In touching the rock or the boulder, it touches us. Even if we do not touch it, just by looking, other senses are ignited. We feel, albeit at varying degrees depending on the individual, the sharpness or the smoothness of the rock within our bodies through merely gazing upon it. (Coleridge speaks of ‘a sort of transfusion and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the object’.)

And this sharpness or smoothness, if we are honest, is not solely connected with the feeling of how it might be to walk over to and touch one of the stones (that would be a secondary, more complex imaginary feat requiring us to make a picture of ourselves, to become self conscious), but has a quality of identification with the stone itself.

This approach to an object is not less advanced or important than a scientific categorisation. When Schrodinger states that no scientific theory itself contains sensations and perceptions. That “as the evolutionary assumption reminds us, not only is it impossible to generate being by mere describing, but, in the proper order of things, being precedes describing both ontologically and chronologically.” he is not making a case for a progression of consciousness, he is making an empirical statement. He forgets to add that being both precedes and concludes description. Before writing that statement he might have settled himself at his desk, glanced around and leant forward. After writing the statement he might have stretched and picked his nose. The abstraction is not made in order to replace everyday reality, but to inform it. The man who creates an abstraction leaves the world but must return. To stay in the world of abstraction where the stone remains inanimate is a postponement not a conclusion. 

For the artist, this identification has a special significance. (19) 

David Abram in “The Spell of the Sensuous” (20) says that the spirits that inhabit the landscape of oral indigenous peoples are the most “precise and parsimonious” way of describing their relationship with the land.  

Painters tend to talk about such things with less precision or taste but more humour

“For me an object is something living. This cigarette or this box of matches contains a secret life much more intense than that of certain human beings. When I see a tree, I receive an impact as if it were somebody breathing, somebody speaking. A tree, too, is something human”

Joan Miro

Art was given a privileged position by both Schelling and Merleau-Ponty. For Schelling it was an “Indifferenzpunkt” (indifference-point), where qualities that seem to be opposed to each other can reach a resolution. For Merleau-Ponty it represented a scrambling of categories. 

I move slowly through the undergrowth. My diagram of this terrain is of little use until I hear the faint rippling noise of water. I move towards the sound and discover a stream, brown but threaded with silver needles, which I can identify as a thin line of blue running across an empty space on my map. I can see that if I follow the stream it will lead me to beginning of a straight pathway. Once I reach the pathway, map reading is no longer necessary. I know that while the track cannot not lead me directly into the glade it bends around the glade in a wide semi-circle, as though the glade contained a force field which kept such pathways at bay.  And when the path begins to curve I will leave it, striking out along the arc’s radial, through ferns and thorn, towards the centre. It’s just about choosing the right moment.

(1) The Statesman’s manual: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(2) France, An Ode: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(3) On Bentham and Coleridge: J.S. Mill

(4) Biographia Literaria: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(5) Biographia Literaria: Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

(6)Other Inquisitions 1937 – 1952: Jorges Luis Borges

(7) Review of Riehl’s “The Natural History of German Life”, Westminster Review: George Eliot 

(8) Biographia Literaria: Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

(9) Letter to John Blackwood: George Eliot

(10) The mistake of associating modernism with Utopianism is the inevitable result of an over reliance on an intellect which disparages the capacities of our animal sensibility.When the immediate present is so distant and to grasp it is so beyond the purpose and the ability of the intellect, the intellect’s best way of describing the present is “Utopia”

(11) The Philosophy of Art: Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling 

(12) The System of Transcendental Idealism: Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling

(13)  Nature: course notes from the Collège de France: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

(14) The Concept of Nature, I, Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952-1960: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

(15) 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.

(16) The testimony of scientists and mathematicians to the aesthetic component of science is voluminous. Bertrand Russell’s statement that “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture” or Paul Erdos comparing the beauty of numbers to Beethoven’s ninth symphony can be submitted as token examples.

(17)Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom: Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling

(18) The Body as Expression and Speech: Maurice Merleau-Ponty

(19) Keats said that he could conceive of a billiard ball taking a sense of delight in ‘its own roundness, smoothness and rapidity of its motion’. 

(20) One way of approaching the difficulty of describing pre-reflective consciousness is to designate a culture as emblematic of pre-reflective consciousness – in much the same way as Schelling uses the Ancient Greeks as a counterpoint to his castigation of Western Culture.

In the visual arts, this approach, particularly in the early 20th Century, has proved useful. Before objections were raised concerning the misrepresentation of such cultures, the cult of primitivism allowed any culture, Minoan, Tahitian, African, you name it, to become a symbol of pre-reflective perception. The fact that such projections were not based on reality did not necessarily hinder the production of art which was based on a mythological reality, but had consequences in terms of solidifying Western Culture’s perceived dominance over other cultures which could be plundered at will. (This, if it needs saying, was not the conscious intention of the artists concerned who thought they were elevating the cultures whose artefacts they admired)

In his book “The Spell of the Sensuous”, David Abram applies a phenomenological approach, informed by the writings of Merleau Ponty, to the oral culture of a number of indigenous peoples. It is a complement, not a criticism to conclude that his work is essentially mythological. 

Comments are closed.