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Brad Sullivan, Wordsworth and the Composition of Knowledge: Refiguring Relationships Among Minds, Worlds, and Words

Monday, April 1, 2002 - 11:58
Brad Sullivan, Wordsworth and the Composition of Knowledge: Refiguring Relationships Among Minds, Worlds, and Words. Studies in Nineteenth-Century British Literature, no. 15.  New York: Peter Lang, 2000.  xii + 202pp.  $50.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8204-4857-5).

Reviewed by
Spencer Hall
Rhode Island College

Brad Sullivan describes Wordsworth and the Composition of Knowledge as "an experiment in critical discourse--an attempt both to discuss and embody an alternative model of knowing" (169). The word "experiment" recalls Wordsworth's own description of Lyrical Ballads, and like the poet's, Sullivan's ambitious and passionate "experiment" may well engender strong responses.  The text is meant to propound and to reflect in its very composition a "rigorous" way of thinking marked by recursive, self-reflexive, and synthetic approaches to knowledge, as opposed to a "systematic" way of thinking marked by linear, logical, and "philosophical" reasoning (103).  The stated aim of this aggressively interdisciplinary work is "to provide a starting point for more fruitful discussions of [Wordsworth's] literary theory, his philosophy, his educational ideas, his social and moral purposes, and his poetic and rhetorical strategies for reaching an audience" (12).  Students of Wordsworth and British Romanticism will find much to interest them in Sullivan's book.  They will also find much to question, beginning with its wildly inflated claim to be a "starting point" for Wordsworth studies.

The book's oft-repeated and overstated premise is that "Cartesian assumptions continue to rule us" (6).  As a saving alternative to "our uncritical acceptance and application of a Cartesian/Newtonian ["Platonic" will be added later] model of knowledge that can no longer be considered valid" (1), Sullivan reconstructs Wordsworth's "ecology of mind."  The poet is presented as a secular prophet who can help lead us across the deserts of Cartesian dualism toward a promised land of moral, social, and pedagogical renewal: "Our goal as learners and educators must be to reconnect 'knowledge' in its broadest sense with the experiences, the feelings, and the needs of the individuals who construct and live within it. . . . Wordsworth is one of the thinkers who can show us how" (Introductory Epigraph).  This doubled approach to "Wordsworth"--as the object of evidentiary literary and historical interpretation and as an exemplary model constructed (or reconstructed) in the service of specific ideological commitments--gives urgency and purpose to Sullivan's work.   It also leads, at times, to literary criticism that is partial, superficial, and inaccurate.

There is, of course, a long literary and cultural tradition--carefully nurtured by Wordsworth and Coleridge themselves ("Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak / A lasting inspiration") and running through Mill's "education of the feelings" to M. H. Abrams's "natural supernaturalism" to recent studies in romantic ecology--of turning to Wordsworth's poetry as a defense against the alienating encroachments of Western positivism.  The conscious efforts of Wordsworth and other Romantic writers to bridge the epistemological fissures ("Cartesian" or otherwise) between subject and object, mind and nature, reason and feeling that had opened in the Enlightenment are a commonplace of Romantic criticism.  Sullivan's study fails to engage (at times even to recognize the existence of) this extensive body of relevant scholarship.

It is one thing to "take seriously" Wordsworth's philosophical thought.  The determination to do so is a genuine strength.  It is quite another to suggest that such an endeavor is both necessary and novel because Wordsworth is generally regarded "as a 'primitivist,' 'an unread poet of Nature'" (64), or because he "is generally dismissed as a serious thinker because he speaks the language of Poetry" (36).  The supporting evidence for these generalizations seems to be Matthew Arnold's famous pronouncement in the nineteenth century and a misleadingly slanted summary of Abrams's exposition of expressive literary theory in The Mirror and the Lamp.  (It is indicative that Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism, like Geoffrey Hartman's Wordsworth's Poetry 1787-1814, does not appear in the Works Cited.)  Much of the best work on Wordsworth in the last ten years--not to mention the last half century--has, in fact, taken seriously, even when deconstructing or interrogating, the philosophical, intellectual, and even "scientific" contents and implications of the poet's discourse.  One must question both the accuracy and the politics of representing "the history of Wordsworth criticism" primarily in terms of "the unfortunate implications of reading Wordsworth through a 'Cartesian filter'" (2).

Having presumed this unfortunate state of critical affairs, Sullivan sets out to remedy it by proposing his own "filters" for reading Wordsworth: "the classical rhetorical tradition and twentieth century [sic] efforts to revise science" (18).  These two discourses are represented as sharing common epistemological ground with each other and with the poet's own thinking about the relation between the mind and external reality.  All three are empirically-based; all three build knowledge on the foundation of perception and personal experience; and all three locate the individual percipient as a participant in larger interrelational processes of meaning making.  Wordsworth, we are told, "attempt[ed] to develop a model of knowing that re-admits the affective, personal, context-bound elements of knowing" and that links "the developing 'self' with developing social and natural contexts" (18).  Such knowing, of which poetry is the privileged model, "is constructed in terms of relationship, interaction, and negotiation rather than in terms of traditional dichotomies such as subject and object, mind and thing, art and science, and so on" (18).

There is little in these representations that will seem unfamiliar to students of Wordsworth and Romanticism.  Such ideas are commonplaces, mutatis mutandi, of the humanistic critical tradition.  What is different, although not original, is their grounding in "revisionary" and "alternative" traditions of Western rhetoric and science instead of nineteenth-century idealist thought.   Like such recent critics as Karl Kroeber, Jonathan Bate, James McKusick, and Mark Lussier, Sullivan foregrounds contemporary developments in biology, neuro-psychology, quantum physics, and systems theory that have influenced twentieth-century ecological and environmental movements.  One is not always sure whether Sullivan envisions Wordsworth as a proto-ecological poet who genuinely anticipated contemporary environmental theory or whether he asserts no more than the existence of compelling and illuminating similarities.  Both positions appear in the text.  What is clear and forcefully conveyed is, first, the desire to repossess the discourses of knowledge and truth from the sway of grammar, logic, and "systematic" philosophy and, secondly, the desire to provide a credible "scientific" framework for understanding Wordsworth's conceptions of mind and self.

Sullivan seeks this framework in the ideas of scientists and scientific theorists such as David Bohm, Morris Berman, Antonio Damasio, and, above all, Gregory Bateson.  The latter's position in Mind and Nature that "all experience is subjective" (87) is the starting point for Sullivan's attempts to demonstrate affinities between Wordsworth's epistemological speculations and those of "many of the most advanced thinkers of the twentieth century: psychologists, language theorists, neurologists, anthropologists, and physical scientists" (88).  These thinkers and Wordsworth have in common, according to Sullivan, a rejection of philosophical, scientific, and empirical models that posit a knowable "objective" reality separate from and prior to perception.  Common, too, is the rejection of any form of philosophical idealism or "mysticism" "requiring that spirit/mind/imagination be separate from, and somehow superadded to, physical processes" (105).  "Tintern Abbey," for instance, is described as "an effort to forge an intellectual faith based on empirical rather than intuitive revelation, a faith grounded in biology rather than in 'spirituality'" (69).

As both Wordsworth and Coleridge were profoundly aware, the immediate dangers of such a physically and perceptually-based theory of knowledge are determinism and solipsism.  Sullivan argues that Wordsworth, in specific contradistinction to Coleridge, developed an "ecology of mind" capable of slaying both those dragons.  Once again, it is Bateson's "cybernetics" that provides the interpretative model for viewing "mind" as "emergent" within self-regulating, self-correcting information systems.  According to Bateson, such systems display, while remaining irreducibly physical, "mindful" and "mindlike" characteristics.  Sullivan offers the following example: "Like an ant colony, which behaves as if it were a single mind and yet contains ants which act according to their own rudimentary minds, systems such as human families, cultures, and ecosystems may be, in fact, minds which are both constituted by and constitutive of the individual minds at work within them" (110).  The Wordsworthian subject, then, while firmly rooted in empirical acts of perception, achieves personal identity and imaginative creativity by participating in and interrelating with "larger mind-like processes of family, social structure, and the natural world" (82).

One of Sullivan's most adventurous theoretical moves is to align ecological science with what is rather confusingly introduced as "the classical rhetorical tradition" (18).  This "tradition" turns out to be, historically considered, a "counter-tradition" begun by Isocrates and the Sophists in opposition to Plato, which Wordsworth is said to have learned from Quintilian's Institutes.   The possible influence of Quintilian on Wordsworth's poetics has not gone unnoticed by recent critics, and Sullivan adds to our knowledge by noting some revealing parallels between the Institutes and the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.  (One may find less persuasive the oversimplified characterizations of Platonic philosophy and the unsupported assumptions regarding Sophistic influences on Quintilian.)  Sullivan's real interest, however, is not in source or influence studies but in theorizing, following Kenneth Burke, "A Broader View of Rhetoric" (121) as "the construction and sharing of symbolic meaning" (118).  Deploying this "all-encompassing sense of rhetoric," Sullivan asserts an "ancient and ongoing battle between philosophy and rhetoric" (10) and denominates Wordsworth, notwithstanding what would have been the latter's strenuous objections, a "rhetorical" as opposed to a "philosophical" poet (122).  One might suggest here that Sullivan's reconstruction of "rhetoric" seems far too broad (what form of human discourse would not be, in these terms, "rhetorical"?) and his representation of "philosophy" far too narrow (a pervasive problem stemming from the reduction of "philosophy" per se to "Cartesian" premises) to be very useful as critical or historical designations.

Sullivan positions Wordsworth and the Composition of Knowledge as an alternative "critical discourse" both to "traditional" and to poststructuralist studies of the poet.  (The text is as summarily and simplistically dismissive of deconstructionism as it is of Abrams.)  Its goal is to reconstruct the familiar Romantic values (ideologies?) of unity, relationship, personal experience, and growth on the presumptively solid grounds of ecological science and representational rhetoric, thus rescuing them not only from Cartesian dualism but from the "mysticism" and "spirituality" of Romantic idealist epistemology. Like Kroeber, Bate, and other ecological Romantic critics, Sullivan's project reminds us that Wordsworth sought "In nature and the language of the sense" an empirical basis for his philosophical speculations and personal development.  It is a reminder worth having as a corrective to exclusive critical preoccupations--whether constructive or deconstructive--with the Romantic sublime, the apocalyptic imagination, and the autonomous self.

Inevitably, however, questions arise about the extent to which Wordsworth's poetry projects a consistent belief in the emergence of mind within natural process, as well as the extent to which twentieth-century materialist thought--whether critical or scientific--is an appropriate screen for reinterpreting Romantic constructions of mind, imagination, and spirit.  On the one hand, there is very little in Sullivan's celebratory account of Wordsworth's empiricism to suggest the profound and pervasive ambivalence that the poet expressed concerning "the tyranny of the eye" and the "abyss of idealism."  On the other, Wordsworth's deeply-felt religious commitments and intuitions are too easily dismissed as rhetorical sleights-of-hand: "The larger mind and himself become one, and 'God' is a familiar placeholder which he posits and then quickly frees of its conceptual freight" (112).   One may speculate (thinking, perhaps, of the famous description of London in The Prelude) how convincing Wordsworth would have found the ant-colony model of a "larger mind" constituting and constituted by smaller "individual minds."

One difficulty with the book, especially given its wide-ranging critical and polemical ambitions, is that its reconstruction of "Wordsworth" is based on limited and selective references to a limited number of "early texts, including the 'Essay on Morals,' the Lyrical Ballads (and all the Prefaces), the 1797 Borderers, and the 1805 Prelude" (18).  The "Essay" is not widely familiar, even to Romanticists, and Sullivan makes an interesting case for its importance.  For obvious reasons, however, he focuses on "The Preface to Lyrical Ballads" as Wordsworth's major theoretical exposition of an "alternative model of knowing."  One wonders in what ways a consideration of other theoretical statements, for example, the 1815 Preface to Poems and the Essay, Supplementary, might have modified certain generalizations about Wordsworth's overall philosophies of mind, self, and poetry.  Indeed, there are numerous generalizations in the text that might have profited from a wider consideration of or familiarity with the poetry.  An example is the erroneous conclusion that "Wordsworth carefully avoids constructions of Imagination as an autonomous power of creation" (66-67).   The Simplon Pass episode from Book 6 of The Prelude, like many other passages that come quickly to mind, is not discussed.

Sullivan does provide, in Chapter 8 on "Poetry and Composing," short readings of three lyrical ballads: "We are Seven," "The Solitary Reaper," and "Tintern Abbey."  The readings, which focus on constructions of "identity" and "relationship" between personae, characters, nature, and readers, seem almost doctrinairely sentimental in their avoidance of the dialogical, textual, and conceptual complexities that critics of various theoretical persuasions have found.  It is also not obvious how, on a practical level, these "ecological" and "rhetorical" readings differ substantially from "traditional" Romantic accounts of organicism and the sympathetic imagination.  Are we drinking old wine from new bottles, or has the vintage genuinely been permuted?

Considered as an interdisciplinary "experiment" aiming "to embody the natural connections of literary study, rhetoric, and systems theory," Wordsworth and the Composition of Knowledge is an innovative, aspiring work that rewards attention, however successful or unsuccessful it proves to be at "combin[ing] theory and application into praxis" (169).  As a work of Wordsworth criticism, the text would be improved by a more comprehensive and responsive engagement with scholarship in the field and a more informed and subtle encounter with the "unknown modes of being" that traverse Wordsworth's poetic thought.