Saturday, 24 November 2012


Back to Coleridge. Did you miss him?

Actually, this is huge -- unless I'm perpetrating some obvious clunker, which I may well be.  But it seems to me that Coleridge criticism has been getting this Coleridgean coinage wrong.  It's a big part of the argument of the Biographia; the word even has its own Wikipedia page:
Esemplastic is a qualitative adjective which the English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have invented. Despite its etymology from the Greek word πλάττω for "to shape", the term was modelled on Schelling's philosophical term Ineinsbildung – the interweaving of opposites – and implies the process of an object being moulded into unity. The first recorded use of the word is in 1817 by Coleridge in his work, Biographia Literaria, in describing the esemplastic – the unifying – power of the imagination.
It is first mentioned right at the start of BL Chapter 10. The italicised bit is Coleridge's imaginary interlocuter objecting to the word; the rest is Coleridge in his own voice, replying:
"Esemplastic. The word is not in Johnson, nor have I met with it elsewhere." Neither have, I. I constructed it myself from the Greek words, εἰς ἓν πλάττειν, to shape into one; because, having to convey a new sense, I thought that a new term would both aid the recollection of my meaning, and prevent its being confounded with the usual import of the word, imagination.
Now all the Coleridge critics and commentators tell us that the Greek [transliterated: eis ev plattein] means ‘make or shape into one’. Coleridge’s Notebooks for February-June 1813 contain the following, often quoted by critics as elucidating ‘esemplasy’ as a key Coleridgean concept:
His Imagination, if it must be so called, is at all events of the pettiest kind—it is an Imagunculation.—How excellently the German Einbildungskraft expresses this prime & loftiest Faculty, the power of co-adunation, the faculty hat forms the many into one, in eins Bildung. [Coleridge, Collected Notebooks III (ed. Kathleen Coburn, 1973), 4176]
In fact the ‘ein’ in the German Einbildungskraft means ‘in’, not 'one'; such that the word means ‘informing power’ rather than ‘one-forming power’. It’s unclear to whom Coleridge refers in the opening of this passage; possibly Southey. ‘Adunation’ is defined by Johnson as ‘an union; being joined.’  The Notebook entry goes to the experiment with English versions of the German: ‘Eisenoplasy or esenoplastic Power’. Nigel Leask [Biographia Literaria (Everyman 1997), 389] thinks it ‘noteworthy that Coleridge here [in chapter 10] suppresses the German origins of “esemplastic”, replacing it with a Greek etymology.’ It may be so; but that Greek etymology is interesting in its own right.

Watch out for the 'BUT!'. It's coming.

Πλάττειν is from πλάττω, ‘to form, mould or shape’ but the more usual form is πλάσσω—from this form we get πλάστος ‘formed, moulded’, the root of the English word ‘plastic’. Conceivably Coleridge specifies πλάττω because, as the Attic form of the word, it is the way it appears in Plato (for instance: Phaedrus 246c; Republic 420c), where it is used to mean—to quote Liddell and Scott—‘to form in the mind, form a notion of a thing.’ ‘εν’ means ‘in’; but—BUT!—‘εἰς’, whatever Coleridge scholars seem to assume, does not mean ‘one’ (‘one’ would be εἷς, ‘heis’). It is, rather, a preposition of place, towardsness, inwardness, in-ness and the like. Since Coleridge specifies ‘esemplasy’ not ‘hesemplasy’, and since he knew the importance of breathings to Greek vowels, we can assume this is intentional. The other thing to say about the ‘εἰς’ [‘to’, ‘into’] is that it too is Attic dialect: other Greek dialects prefer ‘ἐς’ ‘except that’ (to quote L & S again) ‘Poets use εἰς before vowels when metre requires a long syllable.’ The English pronunciation of ‘esemplasy’ with a short initial ‘e’ misses this; maybe we should get into the habit of saying ‘ēsemplasy’; something which would have the additional benefit of glancing at a pun in the Greek ‘ἦς’ [ēs] a variant of εἰμι [‘eimi’] (found for instance in Theocritus) meaning ‘I am’, or the “I am”. The upshot of this speculation (not, I concede, supported by—for example—any Coleridgean notebook scribbles) is that the invented Greek etymology of ‘esemplasy’ is there to emphasise not the oneness but he ideational subjectivity of the concept: that, in other words, it is something tied not so much to the oneness of the cosmos as the oneness of the soul.

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