'I cried "Come, tell me how you live!" / And thumped him on the head': Wordsworth, Carroll and the 'Aged, Aged Man'[Notice]

  • Simon Malpas

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  • Simon Malpas
    University of Wales, Cardiff

The question that lies behind this essay could not be simpler: what happens when a self meets or encounters an other? Its a simple, almost banal, question, but one that has important and far-reaching implications. It is the crucial question posed in Emmanuel Levinas's ethics; a theory of ethics which has, in turn, influenced thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard. I don't want to engage in an abstract argument here - that's not the point of this essay - but I will point to one key premise underlying my question. For Levinas, the self-other relationship is based on a fundamental and violent disequilibrium: the self experiences, thinks, comprehends and represents the other - it is active; the other is experienced, thought, comprehended, represented - passive. This is unavoidable: if the other were to remain wholly other to the self - unknown, unrepresented - no encounter could take place and knowledge would be impossible. The ethical implications concern the way in which this inevitable process of representation is performed and seeks to recognise and to think the violence that it entails. So, what happens when a self meets an other? I want to contrast two versions of the same, quite simple, event: a meeting that happens and is subsequently reported, represented, by a narrator. I'll start with the second, revisionary, version of the encounter, the "report" of which begins: The encounter depicted in this passage is, of course, already familiar from Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence"; and yet, everything seems to have changed. The "White Knight's Song" from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass parodies the meeting between the narrator and the Leech-Gatherer that occurs in the second half of Wordsworth's poem, a meeting that strives to resolve the conflict which sets that poem in motion. A very brief precis of the conflict to refresh memories... As I'm sure you recall, "Resolution and Independence" opens with the narrator out for a stroll, feeling "as happy as a boy" because "The pleasant season did my heart employ: / My old remembrances went from me wholly; / And all the ways of men, so vain and melancholy". When suddenly, and apparently inexplicably, he undergoes a violent mood-swing: "As high as we have mounted in delight / In our dejection do we sink so low; / To me that morning did it happen so;". It is at this stage that the meeting occurs: the narrator is greeted by the sight of an old man beside a pond whom he engages in conversation; and it is the recognition of this old man's cheerful demeanour that finally inspires the narrator to prayer: "'God,' said I, 'be my help and stay secure; / I'll think of the Leech-Gatherer on the lonely moor!'". While critical accounts of "Resolution and Independence" often differ quite widely in their opinions about the poem's precise meaning, a consensus seems to have emerged about its general tenor. This consensus places Wordsworth's poem at the centre of, what we might call, the liberal humanist tradition: through perceiving, and identifying with, the old man's perseverance, the narrator learns the value of resolution and independence in the face of suffering and adversity. The self is healed through an empathy with the suffering of the other - an old and familiar story. Recently, Richard Bourke, in a comprehensive review of approaches to this poem, has cited Albert Gerard's and Jane Worthington's accounts as paradigmatic readings of the text, whose conclusions recur with little substantial alteration in a great deal of recent criticism. Gerard's argument is that through "identification with the leech-gatherer' ... the poet is …

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