Positive Negation: On Coleridge’s “Human Life”

Romantic literature at times features instances of positive negation, that trope whereby a literary text gives a body, face, visible form, or effective agency to negativity. In doing so, it anticipates similar features in modernist critical theory, such as Heidegger’s notion of the possibility of the impossibility of existence, or Bataille’s rendition of the presence of the absence of God. Such figures appear in the late poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially “Human Life, On the Denial of Immortality,” which reveal a counterside to his late theological reflections. That poem’s deployment of what Coleridge elsewhere considers to be the “positive state” of “Eternal Death” proposes that without the immortality of the soul, the best instance of positive negation is the living human being, who (in an echo of Milton’s Death) personifies the nothingness she or he must face. Such a figure, the poem suggests, can neither mount a suitable emotion in relation to its nothingness nor make its nothingness meaningful; nevertheless, as something crafted by nature’s “restless hands unconsciously,” the mortal becomes a figure of excess, of what interrupts mere blankness, exemplifying not a dialectical rendition of death but a second-order nullity, and thus can be defined through a Lacanian enigmatic signifier, even if one deprived of any code in which it may make sense. The poem thus anticipates certain a/theological features of recent thought, mapping the human as a site for the assertion of negativity.