Philosophy and Literature 28.2 (2004) 324-341
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Professor of Indifference
Nothing puzzles me more than time and space, and yet nothing puzzles me less, for I never think about them.1
The name of Charles Lamb—essayist, poet, and notorious punster—does not loom large in studies of the philosophy of the English Romantics. The reasons for this initially unsurprising fact range from the personal and obvious to the cultural and curious. Tied for most of his adult life to a clerk's desk at the East India Company, and to the care of his mentally ill sister at home, Lamb was rarely permitted the leisure even to dally in the expansive visionary landscapes explored in the epic works of consciousness of his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. And yet, as the 1810 quip to Manning recorded above suggests, his reluctance to engage with philosophy is not merely attributable to the straitened life of the journeyman scribe. Such a remark is quite typical of Lamb's conscious attempt, in the face of a culture increasingly driven by the dissemination of knowledge, to cultivate an imaginative space the reverse of the knowing or "philosophical." It is this attitude that makes him more, not less, interesting alike for the intellectual historian and the philosopher.
Lamb's avowed carelessness about matters philosophical is as familiar to his readers as the persona of "Elia" adopted for the essays he wrote for the London Magazine in the early 1820s. It is also just as beguiling and intriguing. Lamb's resistance to philosophy and his epistemic insouciance both trade on the suggestion that the desirable mind is the [End Page 324] ironic mind, reflecting—or, perhaps, refracting—a transitional and forever "imperfect" subjectivity. Correspondingly, his essays frequently invoke figures of liminality, of being in two or more states at once: whether between dreams and consciousness in "Witches, and other Night Fears" (1821); past and present in "Distant Correspondents" (1822); truth and lies in "Imperfect Sympathies" (1821); or literal and figurative selves in the imponderable relationship between "Lamb" of "On Christ's Hospital" (1813) and "Elia" of "Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago" (1820).2 Moreover, this self-styled figure of the writer as always between alternate and often contrary conditions, beliefs and identities—what Lamb termed his "bi-parted nature"—has itself become a stock descriptor among Lamb's commentators.3 It is not difficult, for example, to detect its presence in Coleridge's portrayal of his friend as "one hovering between earth and heaven,"4 as well as De Quincey's depiction of a sleeping Lamb as "the image of repose midway between life and death, like the repose of a sculpture."5 More recently, it has shaped Jane Aaron's exploration of his proclaimed "double singleness"6 and Seamus Perry's characterisation of his "borderland," "serious-non-seriousness."7
Understandably, critics of a certain bent have sought to link these features of Lamb's work, arguing that the centrifugal properties of his writing display an aversion to categorical "difference" that is directly related to his suspicion of the dualisms of systematic belief-systems. Gerald Monsman, for example, argues that insofar as Lamb's essays undermine "all transcendental reconciliations or definitive closures," they "appear to be sly critiques of the central dogmas of romanticism."8 However, to class Lamb's writing as radically decentred or self-deconstructing is to miss the profound nostalgia it evinces at critical moments for a neutral ground and a sense of belonging. Lamb's indifference to knowledge, and to philosophy as the pursuit of certain knowledge, is constantly challenged by his fear of imaginative dissolution. Correspondingly, Lamb/Elia's indifferent location between the real and the fictive never quite manages completely to repress the desire for truth. And yet, "indifference," quite apart from being a term that both fascinated and repelled Lamb himself, aptly characterises both his attitude to philosophy and knowledge on one hand, and the liminal properties of his prose on the other. Freud provides a...