Coleridge, Imagination, and Slide Rules

"It is an ancient mariner, and he stoppeth one of three..." Just a few random jottings out of my journal, turned up by running a search on the name "Coleridge."

The other day at Borders, I got Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. Several times in recent weeks, I've thought to myself that one of these days I must check more thoroughly into Coleridge's thinking on imagination. Lo and behold... The book is an amazing omnium gatherum, but in among much else, one finds Coleridge's thinking on the subject, and his well known distinction between imagination and fancy. Coleridge does not manage, quite, to break free of Kant. But making allowance for this, I find that his notion of association, imagination, and the tertium aliquid which issues from the polar tensions therein, is quite similar to my own thinking on surreal juxtapositions and creative metaphor, not only in my dissertation, but going way back into the Madison years. And his distinction between imagination and fancy more or less parallels the distinction between live and dead metaphor. All in all, quite a worthwhile find.

And what is it that is to well up from unfathomable depths? Coleridge would have understood. A profundity, a force, at once perfectly Apollonian and overwhelmingly Dionysian: my oft-touted "core meltdown of the imagination." No, more like a core meltdown of the soul.

I fiddled a little more with the slide rule last night-- yes, I did slightly retighten that one edge-- and I think it is now just about as well calibrated as it's going to be. The hairsbreadth inaccuracies-- localized to one edge of one scale, and even there just barely visible and only under the right conditions-- are, I suppose, only to be expected in a wooden slide rule 60 years old. Mahogany and celluloid are not perfectly stable materials. I can see that I'm dealing with a complex of several interacting factors, and that you can affect the balance of the factors, and that I now have them balanced just about optimally. Just remember that, under some conditions, the very right hand edge of the DF scale can sometimes be off by a cat's whisker, amounting to less than one digit in the third significant figure. And give up on adjusting that slide rule any further, you know what happened last summer.

Another insight came to me from meditating on the slide rule. Namely, that numbers seem to us to be important, significant, "thick," with a weighting roughly proportional to their distribution on the LL3 scale. Each of the lower integers has its own very distinct "personality"-- note how 2 appears lower down, on a scale of its own, and how 1 does not appear on any log-log scale at all, no matter how low you run-- then the distinctiveness of the integers gradually shades off as you go higher, and gives way to the distinctiveness of decads and hektads and chiliads and myriads, each order of magnitude now of roughly the same weight as the entire order of magnitude preceding it. And, somewhere up around five, ten, twenty thousand, the numbers shade off into a vague multitude "as vast as the stars in the sky, as numerous as the sands of the seashore."

If numbers have weight, feel, the sort of heft which a good tool has when held in the hand-- then this is roughly the distribution of their weighting. It looks very much like a logarithmic distribution, very much like the LL3 scale on a slide rule.

This is an insight which surely the ancient Pythagoreans would have appreciated. And, realist that I am, I cannot but feel that here is symbolized some deep objective truth about the numbers themselves-- about Reality with a capital "R". But among moderns, as Coleridge once noted, there seems to be an unspoken agreement never to say anything this "deep" about the way things are. Among moderns, I can think of only a handful of reputable thinkers who would have taken this insight seriously: Charles Peirce and Ernst Cassirer, certainly; Gregory Bateson, yes, in his own wise/foolish way, though there we are already pressing the boundaries of the less than reputable. As for the rest, well, as Coleridge put it, Jakob Boehme is hardly reputable, but for many years Coleridge found more sustenance in the writings of Boehme than in Kant and all his ilk.

How else could you express this insight? Perhaps in kabbalistic terms, where the values of the Hebrew letters run from 1 through 10, and then from 10 through 100, and then from 100 through 900. With each number along the way, each letter, laden with its own wealth of deeper meaning. Something real is being said when we talk about this, and I only wish we lived in an age when such matters were not consigned to oblivion and silence.

Actually, any educated man in Western culture would have recognized what I'm talking about here, up through the Renaissance, and even well up into the seventeenth century. It was only with the coming of the modern worldview-- science as method, Descartes, Newton, and then the Enlightenment-- that this sort of perspective "dried up" in the Western world. It is precisely "this sort of perspective" which Goethe was trying to reintegrate into science with his distinctive approach.

And it is one of my quirks that I have always dwelt within the ambit of this sort of perspective. I am one of the last Westerners you will ever meet, to whom such a view of things has never been alien. That in itself-- as much as my theological or philosophical leanings, as much as my family background, and moreso than my political inclinations-- is what kept me, in my college days, from "cultural assimilation" into the subculture of the academic myrmidons of modernity. I remember sitting there in my dorm room, at eighteen and nineteen years of age, and pondering just such matters, and waging inward battles against all the infernal host that would blind us and deprive us of such a view of things.

What do you think my short story "The Golem," written when I was twenty, was about? You can read that story on many levels, but one of these is its surfacemost level, the story of a skeleton who tried to rob the world of its colors, and a pinochle player, deeply versed in games and kabbalah, who stood almost alone against "the madness of a skeleton who would be a man."

And for all that life has beaten me down these past twenty years, that's still where I stand, in an inversion of Nietzsche: "It is I, a servant of the Crucified, against Dionysus!"

(Note, for all that the modern era celebrates and lauds inversions of every kind, this is one inversion for which you will receive no "extra credit." For the good progressive suit-and-ties are only interested in those inversions which will lull you into a false sense of liberation, while you are being hollowed out and reduced to a slave, a chattel, a commodity, in that brave new world to which liberal modernity inexorably leads.)

Of course, intellectually, I have pursued these matters far, far more deeply than I could ever have dreamed possible when I was a young punk in college, hanging out with M. and downing Buckhorn beer on a Friday night. Hell, intellectually I pursued these matters all the way to a Ph.D. from Duke University! Nor, for me, has it ever been simply an intellectual matter. Even in those days when I had to mind my footnotes, I was always, inside of myself, weaving a seamless garment to which Cantor and Russell and Pythagoras and Peirce and the Renaissance Neoplatonists each contributed their color of thread.

And even in these past several years, when my life crashed and burned, I have somehow managed to keep up the connection. I have somehow managed to keep it up, and even to widen and deepen it.