- William Wordsworth and the Hermeneutics of Incarnation
To the English Romantic poets, David Haney notes, the world seemed to have died at the hands of Enlightenment rationalism by being made merely a referent of transpicuous representational sign-systems. One of their fundamental projects was to reanimate it, and Wordsworth committed himself to an animating poetics, incarnational in concept. Haney quotes the Wordsworthian incarnational locus classicus, the third “Essay Upon Epitaphs”: “If words be not . . . an incarnation of the thought but only a clothing for it, then surely will they prove an ill gift; . . . Language, if it do not uphold, and feed, . . . is a counter-spirit unremittingly and noiselessly at work to derange, to subvert, to lay waste, to vitiate, and to dissolve” (p. 1). He conjoins Wordsworth’s statement in a note to “The Thorn” that words should seize us “not as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are themselves part of the passion” (p. 24). “Incarnational” is not further defined directly, though we are told that it characterizes a poetic practice, “a philosophically and theologically important concept embedded [in our cultural] heritage,” and a theoretical orientation that acts “against the very idea of a ‘theory’” (p. 4). Haney draws principally from Gadamer, Lévinas, Cavell, Geoffrey Hartman, and Charles Taylor to explore through philosophical argumentation the ways in which Wordsworth incorporated, elaborated, problematized, and even betrayed these aspects of the incarnational process in his work.
One of Haney’s concerns is to show how reading through the lens of incarnational poetics helps us see that Wordsworth incorporated historicity rather than suppressing it, as he is often accused of doing these days. Another is to demonstrate that deconstructive analysis, new-historical critique, and the secularized-Protestantism approach of M. H. Abrams are each inadequate to account for the hermenuetics of this poetics, because it resists and finesses the drive to create the transparent representational structures on which these critics focus. In his incarnational mode, his poetic thought aims not at realizing allegorized abstract truth but at presenting kerygmatically what is instantiated by incarnation as event; thought becomes materially existent without being changed into something else. Incarnational poetics thus acts to counter the binary oppositions (presence/absence, body/spirit, divine/human, etc.) on which both Enlightenment and Romantic discourse relied (the latter reversing the values), and defeats the binarism-dependent drive toward pure self-consciousness that always gets entangled in solipsism and semiological webs. Incarnating thought opens it to the historical process in the sense of Gadamer’s wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein: incarnation is not embodiment or an “ideal effacement of the difference between word and referent, but rather a process of spirit becoming event”; and words thereby become “things and events . . . which must enter the realm of mortality” (p. 19). [End Page 138]
Haney links this confrontation of mortality to both Cavell’s idea of skeptical acknowledgment of the mortal other replacing knowledge and Lévinas’ conception of a preontological “saying” that dialogically makes us responsible for the other but must die into the “said” to be understood. These connections allow him to enlarge brilliantly our understanding of The Prelude, Book 5, and the “Lucy poems.” Here words achieve visionary power not by a symbolic link to transcendence but “by allowing themselves to be interrupted by that which is absolutely other, and therefore ‘infinite’ in Levinas’ sense” (p. 87). Haney extends this and related insights in a chapter on the final books of The Prelude that shows, among other things, how its figural structures for the autobiographical self begin to break down and are replaced by tropological performatives. These lead away from a systematic code of representation but allow recuperation through the “dialogue” with Coleridge, a non-totalizing process of closure that by linking the autobiographical self to the extratextual self opens the poem to a “range of projective sympathies” (Charles Altieri, quoted in Haney, p. 137).
Haney also explores how the incarnational hermeneutic works to close the widening gap between epistemology and ethics fostered by the Enlightenment’s commitment...