How can one decipher what Wordsworth means?  For Burke, the power that exceeds human speech resides in affect, but only because affect encounters the singularity of the object – in a sense, the true, unitary  speech of things.  For Kant, the power that exceeds human speech is the noumenal, or the sheer heterogeneity of “things-in-themselves” that simply is not cognizable, or not accessible to the a priori bounds of the categories of understanding.  But the a priori, too, as pure mind rather than heterogeneous matter, surpasses representation.

When Wordsworth suggests that the word “Imagination” is itself an inadequate means of referring to a phenomenon or power, does he find the word inadequate because “imagination” implies a metaphysical faculty when he wants to refer to a heterogeneous phenomenon? Is the metaphysics of language (or of logocentric capture) the problem?  Is “imagination” – in De Man’s sense of an ironic, irresolvable gap between phenomena and language – an experiential thing that words gesture off into abstract oblivion?  Does the very act of attempting to represent it, through figuration, disfigure it, or pass it along a phantom series, from living experience to concepts at second and third removes?

Imagination – here the Power so called

Through sad incompetence of human speech,

That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss

Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,

At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;

Imagination here (deferred, echoed as a likeness, ‘stepped-down’ into representation) engulfs and overwhelms the “lonely traveller,” whose disorientation is suddenly absolute: “I was lost.”

Halted without an effort to break through;

But to my conscious soul I now can say –

‘I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

(Prelude VI, 592-602)

Is this not just like Kant’s account: a sudden, total disorientation and a glimpse of glory.  Why, then, does Kant see in the glorious glimpse pure a priori mind (as “reason”) when Wordsworth sees “Imagination”?  Is imagination an a priori faculty of the mind for Wordsworth, or the creative becoming of the mind (indivisible from the creativity of phenomenal becoming) or a thing he cannot describe?  Why does he seem to identify the imagination with his “conscious soul”?  Does this not seem to suggest that what Wordsworth glimpsed in that total disorientation of discursive reason was his soul?  One of the things that the image of the “flash” revealing the “invisible world” seems most to suggest is that when Wordsworth realized he had crossed the Alps without knowing it, he glimpsed the cosmic scale of things, from which all relative goals (and indeed all relative existence in space and time) no longer seemed to have a bound, center, or basis or comparison.  “I was lost” might mean, “I lost all point of reference.”  In the failure of relative knowledge, he had a flash of the unknown, or of the absolute.  As the absolute cannot be described, it can only be represented as “usurpation” – an utter irrelevance of the ‘I’ as the knowing center.

From this perspective, perhaps the most compelling (if still inadequate) answer for why Wordsworth represents this usurping awareness as imagination is that, for him, imagination itself stands as an emblem of that which is other to reason.  Imagination is an “unknown mode.”

This ‘alternative’ version of Kant’s sublime blatantly changes the terms.  Kant sees, at the heart of the sublime, the radical failure of the imagination (in its image-bound, constructivist attempts to organize heterogeneity), a failure that reveals the deeper unity of reason.  By constrast, Wordsworth connects “Imagination” to an unknown mode without reference point, a kind of awareness that cannot be converted into “knowledge,” an “unfathered vapour” or immanence tied not to the “light of sense” but to the lightning flash that reveals “the invisible world.”  Moreover, where Ferguson describes the Burkean account of the sublime as an absolute grasping of the “one” (the solitary, singular self) and the Kantian account as a non-coercive, relative, constructivist designation of the “one,” for Wordsworth, the key point is: “I was lost.”

Imagination, here, is figured as a “Power” that escapes accurate description, or one that exceeds language. That is, one way of defining imagination is that, though it clothes itself in language, it is never identical with language. It is “awful” and sublime (quite in contrast to what Kant argues – i.e., that when imagination fails the sublime power ‘rises’ as reason), and arises not from the abyss of a cliff or cataract, but from the awful terrain of the mind.

Wordsworth writes: “I was lost.” One can read this to mean: the sense of “I” (agency) was lost. As in Kant, the individual mind is “halted” – but here the metaphor is of being surrounded by a disorienting mist not faced with a ‘boundless’ immensity. Kant’s emphasis on boundedness and the boundless is explicit. Yet Kant protects us from the boundless by arguing that what we really encounter is not the boundless but the representation form or power of our own reason. Here, though, in Wordsworth, the poet is enshrouded in the power of the Neoplatonic “one,” a vapour that requires no father but rises as pure immanence.

The next lines are stunningly ambiguous: “But to my conscious soul I now can say/’I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength/Of usurpation…” A ‘usurpation’ has taken place, but of what by what? Who is the poet addressing: his conscious soul, his consciousness, his soul, or the power of imagination, when he says, ‘I recognize thy glory’? Clearly he means the imagination, yet why then does he offer the phrase “conscious soul”? A condensation seems to take place: the aspect of the soul that can be designated as conscious, and as glorious, is the imagination. [AGAIN TIE TO DELEUZE PLOTINUS]

The phrase “to my conscious soul” implies an address to his own soul, an acknowledgement that his soul is conscious, or maybe a consciousness that he must be a soul, and that the soul has usurped reason?

Consciousness (under the name of the father, reason) has been usurped. In the same gesture, religious dogma (God the father) has been usurped by creative interbeing. If we take Wordsworth literally, he was ‘rapt’ away, wrapped up, overwhelmed by a “strength of usurpation”: “when the light of sense/Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed/The invisible world…”

Could this suggest not that the light of sense is ‘snuffed out’ but that the sensing light of intelligent feeling extends outward into the world?  Apparently not, because WW writes, “but” – it snuffs out, but with a flash – for a moment one apprehends the invisible.

Hartman quite suggestively reads such statements as references to actual death, and to an anxiety about mortality. The “light of sense” is a difficult phrase. Does it refer to consciousness or sentience as ‘sense experience’, or to consciousness as that which makes sense of phenomenal experience (what Kant calls imagination, which we cannot trust (as naive immediacy) because the imagination is an abstracting faculty that filters sensuous intuition, apprehending only the approximate shape, and general form, of sense objects.  Is the extinguishing of the light of sense death, or is it the momentary glimpse of life no longer captured or limited by discursive faculties?

Above all, how is it that Wordsworth associates the sublime experience of the power of the imagination with the going “out” of the “light of sense,” when for Kant imagination is the light of sense?  In Kant, admittedly, this “light” could also be understood as intuition, or pre-representational sense-impingement.  But the halting, or the break that Wordsworth describes would seem to correspond to the Kantian sudden, radical failure of imagination to make sense of the sense world – to fail to form “mental objects” or mental images.  The key idea here, it seems, is that the mind is almost always without fail occupied with mental images, and these mental images appear to capture (in a secondary way) the world in excess of representation.  In the lapse of these mental images, the mind all at once breaks a habit of discursive grasping – and endless involvement in objects that ultimately defy its grasp – and the point is that the break is an enormous opportunity for the mind not to be entangled in sense-impressions and mental images.  For Kant, this break would emphatically not represent an opportunity for imagination (as a faculty of mental images) but for reality – the pure formal reality of mind.

How, then, can Wordsworth usurp the Kantian model, and restage the sublime as Imagination?  One has to examine the lines again:

in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

One may note the “excursive” quality of this “light” of sense.  That it “goes out” seems to carry a double meaning: it is extinguished, but also it travels outward. It travels outward as a sudden lightning “flash,” one that reveals the “invisible world.”  This invisible world is not where “greatness” makes its “abode.”  Rather, “greatness” makes it abode in the “strength/Of usurpation” – in the event, the occurrence, the processual moment of revelation.  Greatness is then the defamiliarizing power that overthrows conditioned perception.  (For Foucault this defined the avant-garde of modernism, in its encounter with ‘madness’).

Does Wordsworth mean the light of common sense? Or, does he mean perception itself? This “light” goes out, but “with a flash that has revealed/The invisible world.” Suddenly, the metaphor has shifted radically from an enshrouding mist to a flash of lightning, as if the ‘invisible’ is all around us, but we lack the vision to see it. Blind, bounded, unconscious, we cannot see what lies outside identity, and what is only visible in the death of identity. Arguably, “I” and ”soul” are not at all synonymous – the latter is invisible and non-codifiable: it can only flash in the disruption of discursive identity. So, it is a sweetly sad contradiction to say “‘I recognize thy glory:’” – because it involves a disownment – in a sense, ‘I’ can never recognize the soul’s greatness or glory, because that glory only flashes in the annihilation of the ‘I’ – but this can be acknowledged syntactically through the pronoun “thy” (‘I recognize thy glory’) – the glory is not mine but thine (it is of an otherness, an alterity). Imagination is the power of this alterity.

Consciousness, enshrouded in the vaporous power of the imagination, is a self-annihilatory lightning flash that reveals the “invisible world.” More befuddling yet, all of this is a description of an “abode.” “Greatness” (or the sublime) makes its “abode” in this “strength/Of usurpation” which is not a thing but a “when,” a “when” that is an incursion into, a usurpation of, ordinary time:

But to my conscious soul I now can say –

‘I recognize thy glory:’ in such strength

Of usurpation, when the light of sense

Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed

The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.

Here, perhaps, we have the image of a flash within a cloud, both figures for a disembodied mind. Wordsworth’s language seems to emerge from a specific religious terminology, one I have not yet traced, but with interesting connections to kabbalah and possibly gnosticism. In kabbalah, or Jewish mystic thought, the polysemic word “shekinah” refers to the presence of God, the abode or dwelling of God, and to the female presence or “bride” of God. In the Christian tradition, this presence of God is often associated with “glory.” Hence, it’s rather hard to read this outside the context of Judeo-Christian mystic experience, or theophany, with the one crucial difference that this indwelling fatherless presence of glory is explicitly linked to the imagination, and explicitly linked to a usurpation of paternal, institutional rationality.

This flash of mind-as-alterity that is both within the personal mind and radically outside it (at the core of personality-in-life and yet unbounded-in-death) is like the traditional religious concept of the ‘presence of God’: a presence too powerful to look upon and live. It is death, but the death of the limited identity (the “I”). To see it is the end of consciousness. In that sense, consciousness is a shadow, a shabby construction of words or mediate fabrications. One finds the same logic in Shelley’s famous metaphor for poetry in A Defence of Poetry: “Poetry is a sword of lightning ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.”

This is exceedingly different from Kant’s account of the sublime, in that it involves not a cancellation of the illusion of sense-experience and the exposure of the work of representation as a marvellous encounter with the very form of the mind, but a glimpse of the soul, that cannot be experienced except as the cancellation of the known, the visible, the structured: a usurpation.

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