Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Guide to Phenomenality

Wordsworth’s popular touristic Guide to the Lakes (1810) includes this description of an “inverted scene”:

Walking by the side of Ullswater upon a calm September morning, I saw, deep within the bosom of the lake, a magnificent Castle, with towers and battlements, nothing could be more distinct than the whole edifice;--after gazing with delight upon it for some time, as upon a work of enchantment, I could not but regret that my previous knowledge of the place enabled me to account for the appearance. It was in fact the reflection of a pleasure-house called Lyulph’s Tower—the towers and battlements magnified and so much changed in shape as not to be immediately recognized. In the meanwhile, the pleasure-house itself was altogether hidden from my view by a body of vapour stretching over it and along the hill-side on which it stands, but not so as to have intercepted its communication with the lake; and hence this novel and most impressive object, which, if I had been a stranger to the spot, would from its being inexplicable have long detained the mind in a state of pleasing astonishment. (Guide to the Lakes, ed. Ernest de Sélincourt [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977], 108)

Taken as it first appears, as a reflection with no obvious original, Wordsworth’s inverted castle makes a good emblem of Kant’s Erscheinung, appearance that is stable, clear, and replete. Kant’s world is like that reflection, except that the vapor will never lift to reveal the inn. Still, while Wordsworth has “previous knowledge” that Lyulph’s pleasure-house is there to be reflected, in Kant’s philosophy we have some knowledge too, not of what’s there, but that something is. We know the human world isn’t necessarily the last authority on the world as such, and understanding the possible difference between appearances for-us and for other potential rational beings allows one to “think beyond” the apparent world in the process of knowing that one will continue to experience only its appearance. Wordsworth’s lake scene evokes the Kantian repleteness of appearance well because its scale is so vast and because Wordsworth’s response is so rational. That said, his response is complicated. Wordsworth “regret[s]” his previous knowledge, imagining what he assumes to be the intenser feelings that would be aroused by a truly “inexplicable” appearance; but he regretfully regrets it, in a double negative (“could not but regret”) that continues to endorse the secular view while playing at departing from it. Wordsworth’s imagination of what it would be like to be an unenlightened stranger, moreover—that is, his assumption that that person would be able to be more pleased than he is—is contradicted by his self-description, in which he already has “gazed with delight . . . for some time, as upon a work of enchantment.” What would be the difference between this and being “long detained . . . in a state of pleasing astonishment”? Only the “as.” And it’s more plausible to suppose that it’s that “as” clause that actually allows Wordsworth more enjoyment than the fictive befuddled stranger, because Wordsworth can both know that Lyulph’s pleasure-house is there and pretend he doesn’t; he can frame the reflection as a reflection—a normal appearance—or as an extraordinary illusion of some kind. Wordsworth’s knowledge is exactly what allows him to choose how to take the appearance: as appearance (Erscheinung) or as though it were illusion (Schein). This ability to choose how mentally to frame a natural appearance to enjoy it as aesthetic Schein is paradigmatic of the new romantic (post-Kantian) enjoyment of scenery. Manipulating the appearance/fictive illusion toggle is what visual enjoyment is all about; anyone who really didn’t know how to do this would be prone to more astonishment than pleasure. With the technics of phenomenal enjoyment, though, also comes its potential commodification—it becomes worth something for someone like Wordsworth to show how he, personally, does it, which is why this whole episode is included in Wordsworth’s own tourist guide . . . .

Image: tree shadow, downtown L.A.