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Coleridge's 'Poetic Faith' and Poe's Scientific Hoax

  • Daniel Burgoyne

…plus d’informations

  • Daniel Burgoyne
    University of British Columbia

Corps de l’article

Tricksters or fakes, assistants or 'toons, they are the exemplars of the coming community.  [1]

Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community 10,1

In this essay, I explore the relation between romanticism and science fiction by examining the development of scientific and futuristic hoaxes in the early nineteenth century. Although these hoaxes are arguably early works of science fiction, my main interest involves the specific manipulations of genre and media that each hoax engages in. My effort is to theorize hoaxing in terms of recent genre theory, which emphasizes the situational aspects of genre; and to do so in a manner that helps explain the inception of science fiction in the early nineteenth century. My theory of hoaxing derives from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's use of the supernatural in poetry, with special attention to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Coleridge's interest in the supernatural is principally directed towards the way that the creative or active aspects of reading are often not recognized by readers; with the interest of the imagination involving the retrospective recognition of these active or creative aspects. This attention to the psychology of reading provides a rationale for hoaxing that characterizes Poe's development of the hoax into a sort of literary gesture that he deploys throughout his writing,  [2] but that tends to occur with greater frequency in those tales that anticipate science fiction. Poe emphasizes the disclosure of the hoax as a strategy to provoke a reader. Such provocation has a range of effects that are relevant to science fiction. For example, the investment of belief that occurs in a successful hoax may indicate a shift in the collective sense of what is possible. This type of effect not only underscores the speculative dimension of science fiction,  [3] it also draws attention to the ways that representations contribute to and rely on a reading public's view of the world. Another type of effect produced by the disclosure of a hoax involves defamiliarization; or what Darko Suvin terms "cognitive estrangement" in reference to science fiction.  [4] I am especially interested in the way that familiar patterns, habits, or conventions that inform reading—and that characterize genres—are brought into sharp relief when a hoax is recognized or pointed out.

In order to establish a theoretical basis for discussing hoaxing, I will first outline a number of broad intersections between hoaxes, science fiction, and recent genre theory. I will then look to several examples of scientific and futuristic hoaxes of early and mid-nineteenth century America. While I am interested in a number of Poe's tales, I will focus on two hoaxes perpetrated by the New York Sun: the "Great Astronomical Discoveries" or what is usually referred to as the "Great Moon Hoax" of August 1835 and "The Balloon Hoax" of April 1844. Poe does not perpetrate the first hoax, but he discusses it at length several times. The exploitation of the daily newspaper, especially in the case of "Great Astronomical Discoveries," is of special interest because it affords an acute analysis of the way that hoaxes appropriate or co-opt existing genres or media, and I am particularly interested in thinking about genre in terms social and historical contexts. Following the analyses of these two hoaxes, in order to explain Poe's use of the hoax, I turn to an extended exploration of Coleridge's use of the supernatural in poetry, with specific reference to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Attention to the role of hoax in the early formation of science fiction as a genre is helpful because it emphasizes aspects of recent genre theory that point out the insufficiency of using form as an exclusive or even fundamental aspect of genre. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway provide a succinct introduction to recent genre theory in "Locating Genre Studies: Antecedents and Prospects," in Genre and the New Rhetoric.  [5] The basic tendency of this research has been to identify non-literary genres in places as banal as the tax office (form reports) or as exotic as personal ads. The needs of speech communities give rise to the development of conventions or practices of speech or writing. These conventions may serve as a sort of shorthand or as a necessary process in the life of a community (or the lack thereof). The move away from an exclusively formalist account of genre draws attention to the ways in which formal aspects of genres, such as lineation in poetry or abbreviations in personal ads, function within the historical relations between writers and readers, in the situations and occasions that give rise to texts or speeches. As Carolyn R. Miller notes, in "Genre as Social Action," genre study is valuable "not because it might permit the creation of some kind of taxonomy, but because it emphasizes [. . .] social and historical aspects of rhetoric" (151).

The impact of recent genre theory on the study of science fiction is merely one of emphasis. As Paul Alkon notes, theorists of science fiction like Samuel Delany and Darko Suvin tend to emphasize "the interaction of readers and texts rather than... theme and technique as the primary elements of genre.  [6] At one level, this emphasis involves questions that attend to the social, literary, and other historical contexts of the genre. Why does science fiction develop in the nineteenth century? What roles does it perform within nineteenth century society? These sorts of questions find a range of answers, from the obvious, such as the rapid technological change that occurs in this period, to the more complex, such as the growing hegemony of a scientific world-view and the role of different media and genre in the consolidation of this worldview. On another level, this emphasis requires a careful consideration of what readers are being asked to entertain as possible and the way that readers respond to texts. For example, why do stories about journeying to the moon suddenly adopt the form of the hoax? And why does it suddenly seem believable? My immediate task then is to consider the general relation between hoax and genre. Can hoaxes be considered genres proper? How do we think of their sudden incursions into other genres?

The situational aspects of a hoax are almost singular. A hoax exploits existing genres, and the ways that these genres have established an audience and a set of expectations or even conventions. A hoax involves deception at some level. Often such deception pertains to a claim regarding fact so that an event is thought to have occurred when it did not. To trick and to hoax are almost identical endeavors, but the scale of the hoax is grander—it is a practical joke played at the expense of the public. Perhaps most importantly, a hoax almost inevitably takes advantage of an existing condition of trust in order to perpetrate its deception. It is a doppelganger parading as an already familiar confidant. In this sense, as we will see, even at a formal level the hoax co-opts another genre in order to exploit readers' expectations.

If genre is considered in terms of social action and rhetorical situation, as recent genre theory argues it must be, hoax is difficult to understand as a genre unto itself. Hoaxes depend on an element of surprise that precludes any commonality of situation or audience. It is for this reason that the hoax is inextricable from genre theory, bound up with any genre as its opposite—revealing the context of the rhetorical situation. A hoax is always an occasion. Whatever else we might understand hoaxes to do, it seems sensible to acknowledge that they may perform important roles in genre reformation by drawing attention to (or making visible) aspects of the context of a genre: the extent to which an audience is predetermining what they read; the types of claims that are implicit in a genre; or the way that a genre constructs or arranges shared beliefs about the world.

The relation between hoaxes and science fiction can be treated generally with some success. While science fiction does not pretend that its subject matter will occur—and it certainly doesn't insist that it has occurred—it does rely upon, or at least experiment with, a reader's acceptance of the possibility of the subject matter. In general, it is this emphasis that distinguishes science fiction from fantasy. As Carl Malmgren argues in Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction, science fiction emerges in the early nineteenth century precisely because of a growing consensus regarding how the world is understood.  [7] This consensus finds its origins in the Enlightenment. It involves assumptions about the progressive development of science and technology; the efficacy of this science and technology with regard to invention and discovery; and a notion of change that projects a future that will be different from the present (Malmgren 2-5). Malmgren argues that "the appearance of modern SF is predicated upon the establishment of the scientific episteme as the definitive and hegemonic way of envisioning and explaining the human condition and humanity's place in the larger universe" (171).

The proliferation of scientific hoaxes in the nineteenth century directly intersect with and exploit the consolidation of this world view, as well as various media and genres that are involved in establishing the scientific episteme. Early examples of scientific hoaxes include Charles Redheffer's perpetual motion machine (1812)  [8] and John Cleves Symmes' claims regarding a hollow Earth (1818).  [9] Later examples range from the more banal petrification hoaxes of the middle and late century  [10] to the remarkable Piltdown Hoax of 1912. Hoaxes are not merely exploitive. At a simplistic level, they resemble science fiction by realizing the futuristic promise of the genre. Whereas science fiction projects a possible future, hoaxes pretend that such a future is already happening. In this sense, scientific hoaxes signal the immediacy of the imagined future. At a less simplistic level, hoaxes rely on and reveal a shift in the public's sense of what is possible. As Edgar Allan Poe observes regarding the success of the 1835 "Great Astronomical Discoveries," in his 1846 portrait of Richard Adams Locke in Godey's Lady's Book: not "one person in ten discredited it, and (strangest point of all!) the doubters were chiefly those who doubted without being able to say why—the ignorant, those uninformed in astronomy" (134). Poe notes a professor of mathematics who "told me seriously that he had no doubt of the truth of the whole affair" (134). If science fiction experiments with and explores the possible, hoaxes exploit actual shifts in what is believed to be possible.  [11] This belief may pertain to a "discovered" fact or to the mode of discovery itself. For example, as Stephen Jay Gould argues, the Piltdown hoax depended for its success on the early 20th century assumption that the brain was the distinguishing feature of human superiority, and that the large human cranium must have evolved prior to other changes in the body. As such, the discovery of a human cranium with an ape's jaw corresponded to prevailing theory. In part, the Piltdown hoax can be attributed to the correspondence between the apparent facts of the discovery and the way that the prevailing theory conceived of such facts as possible.  [12] The way that a hoax reveals shifts in what is believed to be possible may also pertain to the mode of dissemination itself. For example, both "Great Astronomical Discoveries" and the "Balloon Hoax" exploit several media, from scientific journals to the newspaper proper. The public's belief in the veracity of these sources and the desire for the immediate revelation of discoveries or news of other events that is the basis of the penny newspaper's daily appearance work in concert to create these hoaxes. In this sense, the deception involved in a hoax is not its principal interest. Even if the hoax is revealed, something else is disclosed. At one level, the belief cannot be removed, because it indicates an acceptance of a possibility. At another level, the manufactured basis of the consent, which belongs to the media or the genre proper, is also recognized. These supplemental recognitions, accompanying the revelation of a hoax, are at the basis of Poe's tendency to conjoin science fiction and hoaxing. They also help explain what Poe means when he says that "we are indebted to the genius of Mr. Locke for one of the most important steps ever yet taken in the pathway of human progress" (135).

In late August of 1835 The New York Sun [13] ran a series of articles (August 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, and 31) that purported to be extracts reprinted from a supplement to The Edinburgh Journal of Science, dictated by Sir John Herschel and written by Dr. Andrew Grant, reporting on Sir John Herschel's astronomical observations at the Cape of Good Hope:

GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
Lately Made
By Sir John Herschel, L.L., D.F.R.S., &c
At the Cape of Good Hope  [14]

From The Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science

The first article details the conception, transportation, and construction of the telescope employed by the expedition. The telescope, which used an objective mirror twenty-four feet in diameter, was based upon a new principle involving the "transfusion of artificial light through the focal object of vision" (Locke 14). The rest of the first article details various astronomical discoveries made by way of this new telescope, including the discovery of "a countless number of new stars and nebulae" (Locke 21). The extract published on August 26 details Herschel's initial observations of the moon. The combination of the size of the telescope and the novel principle of transfusing artificial light through the focal object of vision provided such extreme magnification that Herschel was confident he would be able to study "the entomology of the moon" (Locke 17). The initial observations discover objects of geological and then botanical interest, definitively establishing the existence of life on the lunar surface. Plants are soon surpassed by the observation of various fauna, including creatures that resemble bison, single horned goats, and birds. The August 27 installment continues the lunar observations but yields little new. Attention is focused on seas and volcanoes, although something resembling a bipedal beaver is seen. On August 28, they identify bat-winged hominids resembling orang-outangs. These creatures are "evidently engaged in conversation," and Herschel names them Vespertilio-homo or man-bat (Locke 37, 38). The August 29 extract furthers their discoveries by identifying architectural structures including what appears to be a temple. The final installment on August 31 continues these observations, adding the discovery of a higher order of man-bat. The editor of the New York Sun concludes the series by noting that the original Supplement includes forty pages of mathematical and scientific notes and illustrations that have been omitted because the cost of reproducing them is prohibitive.

The series of articles were a hoax, of course, and the New York Sun admitted it on September 16. The New York Herald identified Richard Adams Locke as the author of the articles. There was no supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. Indeed, there was no Edinburgh Journal of Science. Furthermore, the amanuensis, Dr. Andrew Grant, was a fabrication as well. As Poe details in his 1846 portrait of Locke, and as David Evans shows in two articles in Sky and Telescope in 1981, much of Locke's science is "gobbledygook" (Evans 198). The story was not entirely fabricated. Sir John Herschel was at the Cape of Good Hope at the time, having traveled there in November of 1833 to survey the southern hemisphere using two telescopes: "an 18-inch speculum-metal reflector" and "a 7-inch equatorial refractor" (Evans 196). Interestingly, Poe notes that Harpers had issued an American edition of Sir John Herschel's Treatise on Astronomy in 1834 (Poe, Literati, R.A. Locke 127).  [15] This treatise, which inspired Poe's "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," probably established both the credibility of Herschel as an authority on astronomy, as well as the general plausibility of the telescope as an instrument for the dramatic progressive acquisition of certain types of knowledge for the New York audience. In fact, in order to establish the credibility of the large-scale telescope used by Sir John Herschel, Locke accurately notes the extraordinarily high magnification powers of 6000 made possible by the telescope of Herschel's father, Sir William Herschel. As Evans points out, Sir John Herschel's actual results from the Cape were probably as important as the ones contrived by Locke—albeit, not as sensationalistic (198).

Poe's own turn came on Saturday, April 13, 1844 when the New York Sun issued an "Extra page," a broadside printed on one side, that announced and provided a detailed account of a transatlantic crossing by a balloon, the "flying machine," "Victoria."  [16] The Extra was announced in a postscript in the morning edition of the Sun:

BY EXPRESS
Astounding intelligence by private express from Charleston via Norfolk!—The Atlantic ocean crossed in three days!!—Arrival at Sullivan's Island of a steering balloon invented by Mr. Monck Mason!!

quoted in Beaver 368

Monck Mason was famous for his flight in the balloon Nassau from Vauxhall Gardens, London to Weilberg, Germany, on November 7, 1836. The Extra created an immediate sensation. According to Poe's own account, a large crowd gathered in the square surrounding the New York Sun, waiting for the Extra, and when it appeared at two in the afternoon, it sold out immediately at premium prices.  [17] The account consists of an introductory section and a journal kept by Monk Mason, to which Mr. Ainsworth added a daily postscript. The introduction details the invention of the balloon by Mason, who adapted an Archimedian screw for the purpose of propelling a dirigible balloon filled with more than 40000 cubic feet of coal gas. The flight departed from North Wales on the morning of April 6 with the intention of crossing the English Channel. Once aloft, however, the "steel rod connecting the spring with the propeller was suddenly jerked out of place" and while they struggled to fix it, a current of wind from the east bore them out across the Atlantic at approximately 50 to 60 miles per hour (118). The crew, consisting of eight in total, decided to make the best of the wind and to attempt an Atlantic crossing. They succeed when they sight the coast of South Carolina on the afternoon of April 9. The Extra concludes by noting that the MS, from which the Extra was compiled, was dispatched from Charleston.

Neither of these hoaxes is strikingly original as a story per se: that is, as a topic that had been written about. As Michael J Crowe has shown in The Extraterrestial Life Debate 1750-1900: The idea of a plurality of worlds from Kant to Lowell, Richard Adams Locke's "Great Astronomical Discoveries" needs to be situated within the debate over the plurality of worlds; a debate that intensified in the early nineteenth century.  [18] While Locke contrives Sir John Herschel's scientific report on his astronomical work, there are precedents, especially in Germany, of serious scientific papers purporting to have discovered evidence of life and indeed civilization on the lunar surface. For example, Franz von Paula Gruithuisen issued a number of papers along these lines regarding his work in Germany, including "Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings" in 1824 (Crowe 202, 203). Furthermore, the discovery of life on the moon is an old story that was told repeatedly in numerous guises from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso in 1532 forward. J.O. Bailey provides a brief survey of moon stories from Lucian's Icaromenippus in which Menippus uses wings to fly to the moon in order to ascertain the true shape of the Earth;  [19] to Ariosto's 1532 Orlando Furioso; to the post-Copernican works of Galileo and Johann Kepler; to Bishop Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone (written in 1638, this book is the first moon story to be written in English) and Bishop John Wilkins A Discourse Concerning a New World (1640); including Cyrano de Bergerac's more whimsical and fantasic Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (1659 and 1687) and Gabriel Daniel's A Voyage to the World. Locke's principal innovation on the moon story consists in the use of the telescope.

Similarly, Poe's "Balloon Hoax" appears in the context of speculation and serious planning for attempts at crossing the Atlantic by balloon; and it is indebted to a number of accounts of actual balloon trips, especially Monck Mason's Account of the Late Aeronautical Expedition from London to Weilburg, accomplished by Robert Hollond, Esq., and Charles Green, Aeronaut which was published in London in 1836 and New York in 1837 (Mabbott 1063, 1064). While Poe's narration of a transatlantic balloon flight is original, the mode of the narration and the idea of such a flight is very much current.

The hoaxes succeeded to different extents. Both were successful, but Locke's "Great Astronomical Discoveries" appears to have been radically successful. It boosted the circulation of the New York Sun to more than 19,000 readers, which made it the largest circulation of any English daily, and excited such a great degree of speculation and interest that Benjamin Day issued a reprint in the form of a pamphlet that sold more than 60,000 copies.  [20] The Balloon Hoax is less successful as a hoax per se. Although the Extra of the New YorkSun that carried it sold out and created quite a stir, it was reprinted in several Sunday papers, including the Sunday Times and the Mercury, with humorous asides. The Monday New York Sun carried a retraction noting that the mail had not brought confirmation of the balloon's arrival and that, therefore, "we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous" (quoted in Mabbott 1067). The hoax was based on the claim that private express would precede the mail from Charleston by several hours. This window of opportunity provided the rationale for an Extra. However, once the mail arrived, there was no way to perpetuate the hoax. In addition, as both the Sunday edition of the Mercury indicated, the New York Sun was still remembered for "Great Astronomical Discoveries": "By Express / Astounding Intelligence from the Man in the / Moon" (Quoted in Mabbott 1067). However, Poe did not seem to care much. He was delighted to have the piece published and to witness the initial stir. The immediate success of the hoax is all the more remarkable because, as Beaver notes, it managed to divert attention "from the raging controversy over the admission of Texas into the Union" (369). I will consider Poe's ambivalence later in terms of his literary appropriation of the hoax as a figure.

"The Balloon Hoax" is important for different reasons than Locke's "Great Astronomical Discoveries." Even as it is less successful, its verisimilitude to probable fact is acute. When the first transatlantic balloon flight  [21] did occur in July of 1919, its return flight took seventy-five hours, which is exactly Poe's estimation (Mabbott 1088, n 30). As Hervey Allan notes in Israfel, Poe's hoax is simply an anticipation of the news (quoted in Mabbott 1088). It accurately represents an event that hasn't occurred.

While verisimilitude is obviously an integral part of any hoax, what is involved in such verisimilitude is quite complex because it is not merely a matter of factual accuracy or rational probability. Verisimilitude depends upon what a reader expects as much as it depends upon what would actually be the case. In this sense, the issue of verisimilitude underscores what I take to be the salient point of hoaxes—one that is often difficult to recognize when we look back on them. Whatever allows us to fall for a hoax is inextricable from the cultural and historical context in which we read. It should be noted that aspects of this context may seem banal in retrospect, but they are anything but banal in the moment that they are realized. A successful hoax marks the moment that the willingness to suspend disbelief shifts to abandonment and the investment in belief. In this sense, hoaxes offer watermarks for our sense of what is possible.

The differing successes of these hoaxes indicate a willingness on the part of the New York audience to accept specific features of them as true or at least possible. In the case of "Great Astronomical Discoveries," these features may range from the use of the telescope, specifically the technological innovation that allowed for greater magnification; to the belief in the possibility of life on other worlds; to a willingness to accept the authority or at least the veracity of the different media and genres that Locke exploited. The genre of the scientific report, published in a scientific journal; the extract of the report, simplified for the lay-person; the daily newspaper, broadcasting recent developments and events as quickly as possible; all contribute to the success of Locke's hoax. Poe's hoax exploits ballooning accounts such as Mason's, which was published in New York in 1837. He also relies on recent articles on innovation in ballooning technology, such as an article entitled "Another Aerial Machine" that appeared in Alexander's Express Messenger on February 21 of 1844. This article described Mason's model balloon that was on exhibition in London (Mabbott 1065). Poe is also utilizing the form of the journal as a means to include both an immediate narration and the pretense of the written account itself. I will discuss the use of journal and letters later in terms of the nested narrative of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the reading psychology of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In a general sense that is directly related to the development of science fiction—and I stress that both of these hoaxes are science fiction—these hoaxes reveal the extent to which the newspapers as specific media are participating in the growing hegemony of the scientific episteme in the nineteenth century.

As John Pierce notes, in Odd Genre: A Study in Imagination and Evolution, "the roots of science fiction are lost in the confusion of the classical travel tale, the utopia, the satire, the gothic novel, the scientific hoax and other ur-genres."  [22] Despite this fact, it is a common critical tendency to posit Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the first work of science fiction. Paul Alkon begins his study of science fiction as a genre, Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology, with this contention.  [23] Alkon bases his argument on the rejection of the supernatural in Frankenstein, noting that despite this rejection, terror "remains a desirable effect"—one that Alkon sees as providing an emotional dimension to science fiction that supplements the emphasis on the rational in science fiction in general. Alkon goes on to argue that works of science fiction do not have to have plots that "necessarily command belief even as possibilities, much less as probabilities" (5). Making specific reference to Frankenstein, and following Percy Shelley's Preface to the 1818 edition, Alkon argues that it "is not whether the scientific premise is believable—it was not—but whether a story based on such a premise can achieve a "valuable 'point of view to the imagination'" (5). Thus, while Alkon thinks that "a scientific premise is important, belief in its possibility is not" (6). Alkon's diminishment of possibility as a requisite may make sense at a certain level, but it fails to account for the continuing role of terror in the shift from the supernatural to the scientific in Frankenstein. If the supernatural is rejected, and the science that replaces it has no ground in possibility, what then is the source of the terror? Is it sufficient to dismiss the scientific possibility of the work and to think that a reader will respond with fear? The answer to this problem derives from the difficulty of ascertaining, exactly, what is possible and how we entertain, accept, or otherwise come to believe it. In Frankenstein, the reader does not have unmediated access to the scientific creation. Rather, the whole of the story is written by Walton in a series of letters, the majority of which recount Victor Frankenstein's telling of his life story. In this sense, the issue of possibility is inextricable from that of bias, memory, and veracity; and it is bound up by the internal perspectives of characters and narrators, especially as these characters and narrators exchange roles. (The monster must be included here, for he tells his own story to Frankenstein.) These perspectives inform and manipulate the relations between the suspension of disbelief and belief that a reader negotiates in the novel.

The shift from the supernatural to scientific possibility that occurs in Frankenstein is of particular interest because of what is at stake in the readers' investment of belief that occurs in the scientific hoax. In order to explicate the relevance of this shift to hoaxing, I will now consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge's discussion in Biographia Literaria of his use of the supernatural in Lyrical Ballads with special attention to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." This focus is important for several reasons. First, Coleridge's poetry in general and Biographia Literaria in specific inform the immediate intellectual milieu of Shelley's Frankenstein. Second, Coleridge's interest in the supernatural is primarily directed at the suspension of disbelief on the part of a reader; and he extends his explication of the suspension of disbelief in terms of the way that belief and affect are figured by characters and by narrators within a literary work. Third, Coleridge is fundamentally interested in how the suspension of disbelief leads to the recognition of reading as a constitutive act. This type of recognition on the part of a reader helps explain both a general value for hoaxing and also Poe's tendency to point out the hoax, to deploy it as a sort of literary gesture.

In Chapter XIV of Biographia Literaria,  [24] Coleridge recollects the original plan for Lyrical Ballads in terms of experiments in a series of poems of two sorts. His efforts were to be directed toward the first sort and William Wordsworth's efforts toward the second:

In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life....

BL II 6, Coleridge's emphasis

Coleridge's interest in the supernatural is directed at the psychological state of assenting to, or believing in supernatural incidents or agents, rather than in the supernatural itself.  [25] The "excellence" sought is specifically "in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions..." if the incidents or agents were supposed to be supernatural. His choice of the word "delusion" is critical, because it emphasizes the lack of concern with the authenticity or truth of the event. He is interested in the attribution itself; and not in the representation of supernatural beings or agency.

For instance, in this sense, the status of the albatross in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"  [26] is far less interesting than the status attributed to it by the crew that hangs it around the mariner's neck ("Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung," lines 141,2). The crew assigns interpretations to the Albatross from the moment of its first appearance: "At length did cross an Albatross: / Through the fog it came; / As if it had been a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God's name" (AM 63-6). The marginal gloss interprets it as a "good omen" (AM 74) before the crew is explicitly noted as doing so. After the Mariner shoots the bird (AM 81,2) the crew connects the bird to the wind: "For all averred, I had killed the bird / That made the wind to blow" (AM 93,4). But when the sun burns the fog away they reverse their attribution: "Then all averred, I had killed the bird / That brought the fog and mist / Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, / That bring the fog and mist" (AM 99-102). Whether the Albatross is a spirit, as the marginal gloss explains, or whether its death is the cause of the fate of the ship, are matters of conjecture. If we accept Coleridge's explanation in Chapter XIV, he is interested in the way that the differing attributions on the part of the crew would be accompanied by corresponding emotions. Regardless of the validity of the attributions, such emotions could not be disputed. The "dramatic truth" of such emotions, rather than the supernatural agency itself, interest the "affections" of a reader.

However, having said as much, it is difficult to know where to draw the line between the two. Does a reader merely respond to the emotional state of the characters without making some assessment regarding the validity of the supernatural agency that characters attribute to their experience? Coleridge blurs the distinction between character and audience when he continues his explanation in the next paragraph:

my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

BL II 8

He seems interested in two levels of attribution: 1) the moment on the part of a character, wherein the belief is dramatically rendered as plausible; 2) the "suspension of disbelief" on the part of a reader, in which there is an assent to the attribution of the character. This second point is not necessarily a matter of participating in the belief itself. It is a matter of seeing it occur in the character, and of entertaining that belief as a possibility, or truth of the moment.

The line between these two levels of attribution is obscured by the prominence of the relation between character and reader within "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Coleridge situates the wedding-guest as an auditor to the Mariner's narration. The marginal gloss performs a reading of the poem. Just as various characters, spirits, and voices engage in different attributions to events and people within the narrative; the wedding-guest and the marginal gloss directly attribute belief to the Mariner's tale. The wedding-guest suspends his disbelief to the point that the mariner has to calm him down: "Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest! / This body dropt not down" (AM 234). The marginal gloss expands on the supernatural details of several events. For instance, when the Mariner recounts that some of the crew "in dreams assured were / Of the spirit that plagued us so: / Nine fathoms deep he had followed us / From the land of mist and snow"; the gloss explains that the spirit is "one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted" (AM 130-5).

Another obstacle to drawing this line between character and reader occurs because of a progressive attribution as the Mariner's tale proceeds. This progression can be illustrated by way of distinguishing between superstition and the supernatural. It almost suffices to say that superstition characterizes the outward journey, especially the movement from the southern ocean to the equator in the Pacific Ocean; while the supernatural characterizes the return to England. Especially early in his narration, there are attributions that belong entirely to the superstitious, without fully committing to the supernatural proper; or, the Mariner makes use of lively personifications that animate nature without extending such animation to the supernatural. The crew's various interpretations of the Mariner's slaying of the albatross, noted above, are excellent examples of mere superstition. While the crew wants to attribute supernatural agency to the albatross, they do not know exactly what agency to attribute to it. Even when they hang the bird around the Mariner's neck, they are merely engaged in speculation. Such speculative attribution is considerably different from the events that occur when the Mariner falls in a "swound," while the ship is moving at an unbelievable speed, and he overhears two spirits attempting to understand what they are witnessing (400-433). In the same way, the personification that characterizes the outward journey of the ship differs considerably from its supernatural return. As the ship crosses the equator, a "STORM-BLAST came, and he / Was tyrranous and strong: / He struck with his o'ertaking wings, / And chased us south along" (AM 41-4). Although the causality of this event is somewhat distorted—"southward aye we fled" (AM 50)—it is not presented as a problem or a mystery. The STORM-BLAST pursues "with yell and blow" (AM 46) but the attribution is left at the level of personified nature. Quite to the contrary, the return of the ship is entirely supernatural: "like a pawing horse let go, / She made a sudden bound..." (AM 393,4). The event is so mysterious that the two voices, overheard by the Mariner while he lies in a swound, cannot make sense out of it: "What makes that ship drive on so fast? / What is the OCEAN doing?" (AM 416,7). The Mariner does not attempt to explain the event. He simply recounts it, or the narration of it by the two voices. Nor do the voices, whom the gloss explains are "the Polar Spirit's fellow daemons" (400), do anything more than describe it:

FIRST VOICE.
But why drives on that ship so fast,
Without wave or wind?
SECOND VOICE.
The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind.

AM 426-29

The only explanation is provided by the gloss, as if it is a matter of fact, as an answer to the FIRST VOICE's questions: "The Mariner hath been cast into a trance; for the angelic power causeth the vessel to drive northward, faster than human life could endure" (AM 426ff). Several points can be made here. First, there is a distinct progression from casual attribution (e.g. personification) and superstition to the attribution of supernatural agency. Second, this progression is as dramatic at the level of the wedding-guest (an auditor of the tale) and the marginal gloss (a reader of the poem—see note 8) as it is on the part of the Mariner and the crew. For instance, the wedding-guest's last two outbursts both occur because he fears that the ancient Mariner is a ghost and that the ghosts of the dead crew have animated their dead bodies (AM 228-235, 349-353).

In "Word and 'Languageless' Meanings: Limits of Expression in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Raimonda Modiano focuses on the role of delusion in the Mariner's tale:

Until late in his life Coleridge maintained his view that the true subject of a supernatural poem is the mentality of its narrator and the circumstances that cause him to confuse reality with his distorted apprehension of it. In a notebook entry written in 1830, Coleridge points out that, to ensure the credibility and success of a supernatural tale, the poet "of his free will and judgement" must do "what the Believing Narrator of a Supernatural Incident, Apparition or Charm does from ignorance and weakness of mind,—i.e. mistake a Subjective produce (A saw the Ghost of Z) for an objective fact-the Ghost of Z was there to be seen."  [27]

The "mistake" consists in the forgetting, or the failure to recognize, that the mind has constituted something that it perceives as merely found. Coleridge's interest in the supernatural consists in the way that such incidents betray the mind's constitution of external reality. By extension, the apprehension of such error is critical because such apprehension reveals the active constituents of experience or knowledge. Thus, in Coleridge, we discover both a psychology of reading that exerts caution with regard to how a reader assesses possibility and an explanation for what is disclosed when a hoax is recognized or otherwise found out. It is insufficient to argue, with Alkon, that the scientific premise behind the creation of the monster in Frankenstein was not believable. To do so would be to ignore the unstable and transitive nature of possibility with regard to representation and historical circumstance. Shelley's use of a nested narrative to render a scientific theme enacts a precise translation of Coleridge's use of the supernatural into a scientific register.

As a consummate reader of Coleridge, Poe is fascinated with Coleridge's interest in the psychology of reading from the outset. For example, both Poe's earliest successful tale, "MS Found in a Bottle," and the later "Descent into the Maelstrom" recast Coleridge's "The Rime of Ancient Mariner" in a way that accentuates the issues of belief at both the level of narration and in terms of the veracity of the piece as a whole. Interestingly, both tales are science fiction and both invoke the hoax as a literary gesture: like Frankenstein, "MS Found in a Bottle" involves a polar expedition; and "Descent into the Maelstrom" imagines the descent into and the escape from a whirlpool, with the escape being based upon supposed scientific principles. "MS Found in a Bottle" alludes to John Clyve Symmes' 1818 theory that the earth is hollow and the later Symzonia, A Voyage of Discovery by Captain Adam Seaborn (usually considered to be Symmes). "Descent into the Maelstrom" uses a nested narrative to pose the believability of the narrator's tale as a central interpretative dilemma.

Poe not only consistently links his science fiction experiments with hoaxing; he also thematizes the hoax itself. For example, in "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall," he explicitly interrogates the possibility that Pfaall's message is a hoax. This tale, which Poe claimed was inspired by Sir John Herschel's Treatise on Astronomy, was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in June of 1835. It anticipates Locke's hoax by imagining a balloon flight to the moon. The tale is striking as a work of science fiction insofar as Poe strives for extreme verisimilitude in his rendering of Pfaall's account of his ascent through the atmosphere: "In 'Hans Pfaall' the design is original, inasmuch as regards an attempt at verisimilitude, in the application of scientific principles [. . .] to the actual passage between the earth and the moon."  [28] The detailed empirical observations and scientific speculation that characterizes Pfaall's ascent is notable in this regard. However, Poe undermines the veracity of the piece by drawing attention to its probable status as a hoax: "The letter, having been published, gave rise to a variety of gossip and opinion. Some of the over-wise even made themselves ridiculous by descrying the whole business as nothing better than a hoax" (57). While he continues by speculating that "hoax, with these sorts of people, is, I believe, a general term for all matters above their comprehension" (57), Poe has created a provocation to which readers are invited to respond. The hoax is deployed as sort of gesture that invites readers to evaluate their own interpretation of the tale. Furthermore, the endnote that Poe added when he republished the tale in 1840 discusses Locke's "Great Astronomical Discoveries" in considerable detail. This tendency to draw attention to the hoax, to turn it into a literary gesture, is symptomatic of Poe's Coleridgean interest in the psychology of reading. By revealing the hoax, even as it is being enacted, Poe points to the active constituents of knowledge that are at play in reading.

Like Coleridge, the interest is not the object—supernatural or scientific—but what the appearance of the object says about those who see it and the means by which they all see it together. In his Literati piece on Locke, Poe notes that as the supposed discoveries of Herschel "were gradually spread before the public, the astonishment of that public grew out of all bounds; but those who questioned the veracity of 'The Sun'—the authenticity of the communication to 'The Edinburgh Journal of Science'—were really very few indeed; and this I am forced to look upon as a far more wonderful thing than any 'man-bat' of them all" (127).

Parties annexes