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Bewilderment and Obscurity: A ReviewEssay by Richard Swartz, University of Southern Maine In short, what I had supposed substances were thinned away into shadows, while everywhere shadows were deepened into substances. —Coleridge I take my epigraph from the anonymous letter Coleridge inserted in ch. 13 of Biographia Literaria. This letter, which interrupts Coleridge's disquisition on the imagination, recounts and exemplifies a reader's encounter with hermeneutic difficulty. The unknown correspondent warns Coleridge that the reading public could neither appreciate nor understand his sublime, exacting inquiry into the philosophic grounds of imagination, and cautions him accordingly not to publish it in the present volume, but to reserve it for his "announced treatise on the Logos or communicative inteUect in Man and Deity." In the process of offering Coleridge this piece of advice, he describes the effect the existing portions of ch. 13 had upon him as an interested reader: he is transformed, moved, and shaken; what once seemed obvious is now unclear; what was difficult has been both iUumined and "deepened." What others would find baffling, in short, he finds both challenging and wondrous. Yet this record of one reader's response to Coleridge's brilliant obscurities was actually written by Coleridge himself. Coleridge's sleight of hand, his response to the breathtaking difficulty, obscurity, and beauty of his own prose, is therefore a symbol of writing's power not to disclose, but to lie. Both Paul Armstrong and Allon White emphasize in their different examinations of the interpretive perplexities of early modern fiction that the sign is capable of being interpreted precisely because it is also capable of deceiving.1 Placed in the mid-point of his autobiographical effort to disclose the truth of self and of imaginative being, Coleridge's tricky letter draws attention to the constitutive duplicity of the sign, which cannot harbor the potential of truth without equaUy harboring the potential of deception. Of course, this revelation is not a deliberate one, and it cannot be attributed to Coleridge's genius.Nevertheless, The Henry James Review 12 (1991): 276-81 © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Bewilderment and Obscurity 277 Romanticism's often ambivalent and—as the case of Coleridge attests—often inadvertent discovery of the sign's special power to mislead prefigures the early modern novel and its rejection of the false securities of narrative realism. Armstrong and White insist that while the sign must be capable of disguise to the same extent and for the same reason it is capable of producing meaning, early modern novelists raise this heimeneutic quandary to a supreme level of writerly self-consciousness. Unlike Coleridge, writers like James and Conrad take the sign's power to mislead and to mis-state as the central theme and organizing principle of their fiction. "Deception is a heimeneutic dilemma in James's world," for example, while "Conrad depicts the lie as our metaphysical situation" (Armstrong 106). According to Armstrong and White, then, the major thrust of early modern fiction is to be found in its capacity to make this constitutive secrecy of signs double back on itself until writing becomes a selfconsciously staged encounter with secrecy, deception, perplexity, uncertainty, and obscurity. For Paul Armstrong, the chaUenge of the early modern novel arises from its deUberate effort to confront and to qualify the reader's ordinary perceptions and judgments. The anti-mimetic techniques of a James or a Conrad therefore demand from the reader a responsive act of interpretive and moral re-orientation: "Representation does not copy reality; rather, it reimagines and reinterprets our engagement with the world in a manner that will confirm, extend, or criticize the reader's habitual modes of being and understanding" (16). The ethical dimension of this chaUenge is of particular interest to Armstrong. More specificaUy, his interest in the ethical and moral imperatives of the interepretive act, an interest that thoroughly influences his argument, rests upon his deeper interest in the moral message of Romantic and post-Romantic aesthetic discourse. Philosophical aesthetics since the Romantics has been built upon just such an appeal to the inherently ethical power of literary perplexity. "The discoveries that James, Conrad, and Ford make possible," Armstrong writes, "constitute a challenge to...