A lady once asked me whether I believed in ghosts and apparitions. I answered with truth and simplicity: No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.
This exchange, recorded by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1809, was more than just a chance for a pleasing riposte: it demarcated a subject that had haunted the poet since childhood and to which he would return regularly in both his public and private writings. Typically, the definitive tome that he promised never materialised; yet over many years, in fragments and the occasional sustained burst, Coleridge evolved a psychology of ghosts, visions and apparitions that was more ambitious than any previously attempted. His interest was not in proving that the supernatural was ‘real’; rather, he believed that the rational investigation of miraculous events functioned, among other things, as “a weapon against superstition”. But he was equally unsatisfied with the debunking spirit that saw all spectral experiences as no more than the errors and weaknesses of the gullible. For him, supernatural-seeming events proved much more: they held the key to understanding the deep mysteries of the imagination, and the powers of the mind to shape reality itself.
This post is an excerpt from Mike Jay’s Stranger Than Fiction, which features 24 essays “exploring the twilight zones of history, culture and the human mind” (available in paperback and Kindle formats).
His response to the unnamed lady, later published in his journal The Friend, had first appeared in a notebook entry dated precisely to midnight on Sunday 12 May 1805. On this occasion he had been dozing at a table in the vast library-cum-saloon of the Treasury in Valeta, Malta, when he had opened his eyes to see a man who wasn’t there.
Coleridge had exiled himself to Malta the previous year to break the spell of his opium addiction and failed marriage, and his grand surroundings mirrored the fact that, for the only time in his life, he was holding down a steady and important job: public secretary to the Governor of the island, writing strategic reports on the Mediterranean for the British navy. As usual he had passed a sociable evening among diplomats and civil servants, the last of whom, another secretary named Mr. Dennison, had bid him goodnight ten minutes previously. Coleridge had meant to retire too, but instead had nodded off. When he opened his eyes, he saw Mr. Dennison still sitting across the table from him.
His eyes closed once more, puzzlement mingling with sleep, and when he opened them again he realised that he was in the presence of a waking vision. The Mr. Dennison he had just seen, he now realised, had been a wraith-like illusion, a head and shoulders suspended in mid-air like the grin of the Cheshire cat. The one he saw now was a fully-formed simulacrum; yet, as he roused himself to observe it, he became aware that it was somehow less substantial than the man himself. It had a wispy quality, as if seen through thin smoke, or “like a face in a clear stream”. As he focused more clearly, the table before it and the library shelves behind became more solidly real, yet the figure maintained a “sort of distinct shape and colour” that gave it a feeling of an illusion superimposed by some kind of optical trickery against its surroundings.
Coleridge reached for his notebook and, “not three minutes having intervened”, began to scribble furiously, attempting to record every detail of the apparition while it was still fresh in his mind. As he did so, he began to notice shapes in front of him that were suggestive of the now-vanished illusion. Before him on the table, in the sight-line where the spectral Mr. Dennison had materialised, was a glass flask of port covered in leather; it still had an oddly human shape, and he “clearly detected that this high-shouldered hypochondrical bottle-man had a great share in producing the effect”. The chair opposite him, too, was upholstered in leather, with metal studs around its edges that caught the light, picking out another suggestively human shape that framed that of the bottle. As he focused on these details, the illusion began to reform faintly, though this time “I snapped the spell before it had assumed a recognisable form”.
But there was more to this business than mere tricks of light, shade and perspective: Coleridge was keenly aware that a psychological component was also in play. This had been no terrifying spectre or vengeful ghost; it had held no more for him than a kind of curiosity and aesthetic fascination. This was surely a product of his own state of mind as he had observed it: he had been “pleased with it as a philosophical case” rather than frightened by it. How differently might the illusion have developed if the hairs on his neck had decided to rise in involuntary dread? And yet, as he considered his state of mind, it occurred to him that “the state of the brain and nerves after distress and agitation” might have played its part, too. Coleridge rarely had to search far to identify a source of nervous malaise, and the evening of 12 May 1805 was no exception: only the previous day he had been badly shaken when three stray dogs had gone for him in the streets of Valeta, one of them sinking its teeth into his left calf. Might his curiously placid vision have been a mental trick triggered by a temporarily forgotten nervous stress, but enacted when he happened to be in a state of contemplative tranquillity?
The causes and components of the vision, then, could be sought equally in the external stage-settings and in the inner theatre of the observer’s mind. But Coleridge omits another possibility, one which many modern commentators would argue was the most salient of all: opium. Coleridge had not yet reached the point in his life where his narcotic habit was widely known, and it was only when he was posthumously outed by his protégé and fellow-addict Thomas de Quincey that his reputation, and myth, would become inseparable from the drug. But his heavy use of Kendal’s Black Drop, his favoured, super-strength laudanum tincture, had begun in the Lake District in the winter of 1801, and his attempt to shake free of it in the Mediterranean sunshine had been at best a mixed success. The voyage had begun well, with stimulating views and sea air distracting him from his medication, but storms, sea-sickness and his cramped cabin had eventually shredded his nerves and reduced him to almost constant dosing: he had felt himself becoming the nightmare-haunted walking corpse of his signature work thus far, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Arriving in Malta, the change of scene and exotic landscapes had spurred him on to a healthy regime of country walks and clean living; but over the winter he had relapsed once more, alternating days of brisk diplomatic business with nights of furtive indulgence in spirits, narcotics and lurid, luxurious dreams. As he nodded off at the library table at midnight, there is every likelihood that he was dosed to the gills.
Still, the spectral vision of Mr. Dennison before Coleridge’s waking eyes is not entirely typical of opium’s effects, which tend towards dreamy interior reveries rather than the hallucinatory extrusions into waking reality that are more readily achieved by other psychoactive substances. The drug’s psychic hallmarks for Coleridge at this point, to judge by many harrowing notebook entries, were the nightmares that regularly woke him up screaming, sweating and gasping for breath, with skin-crawling recollections of being pursued, buried alive, mutilated or infected with hideous diseases. He did not associate these with his opium use, and in fact tended to increase his dose when they occurred in the hope of a sounder sleep; the side-effect of opium that he consciously dreaded most was constipation, with its wrenching gut spasms and the accompanying agony and shame of the only effective remedy, the enema. Yet his periods of exceptionally high opium dosage did produce crawling visual effects at the periphery of his vision: in the latter stages of the voyage to Malta he records faces leering at him from the cloths in his cabin, and flapping sails appearing to him as fish gasping and floundering on the deck. Opium may not be adequate as the sole explanation of Coleridge’s vision, but it should probably have been included in his otherwise exhaustive list.
The notebook entry that began in the throes of a vision concluded with a resolution: he would make a similar record whenever such events occurred in the future. “Often and often I have had similar experiences” he wrote, “and therefore resolved to write down the particulars whenever any new instance should occur”. He also began to investigate accounts of miracles and other supernatural experiences that he felt might be analogous to his own, and to develop a theory that might account for them.
Then as now, there were essentially two schools of thought, to neither of which he could entirely subscribe. The first was a religious faith that asserted that miracles were the work of God, who permitted the laws of nature to be overridden in special circumstances to contribute to His greater glory. This was a view that had been delicately teased apart by Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume, whose essay On Miracles had argued that since miracles were by definition impossible, there could never be any such thing as sufficient evidence for them. Coleridge had also read the German philosophers such as G.E.Lessing who had gone further, dissecting the transmission of miracles from unknowable first-person testimonies via a process of Chinese whispers to suitably pious and inspirational narratives.
Although never without religious convictions, Coleridge had always taken the rationalists’ side against belief in miracles, which represented for him the irrational and obscurantist aspects of a faith that needed to justify its authority to the modern age in rational terms. Yet his debunking zeal was tempered by his voracious curiosity about visionary experience, and perhaps even by a little envy of those who had achieved immortality by bringing their visions into the world. He agreed with the critics who argued that the mystics had mistaken their inner worlds for external divinities, but he did not want to rid the world of miracles: rather, he was searching for ways to include miracles in a novel understanding of it.
For this reason, he was equally dissatisfied with the rational alternative to religious faith. This was the theory, developed by philosophers such as John Locke, that miracles and supernatural experiences were simply errors of cognition, perceptions that had been wrongly associated in the mind and coloured by memories, fables and fancies. For Coleridge this theory gave too little credit to the mind, and too much to a mundane conception of reality. He wanted an explanation that did more than dismiss such experiences as perceptual illusions: one that could explore, as he had with his vision of Mr. Dennison, the active role played by the imagination in their creation. He proceeded, as he often did, to coin a new term to describe such experiences: “supersensual”, a rendering perhaps of the German word űbersinnlich, developed by the mystic Jacob Boehme and included by Goethe in his Faust. ‘Supernatural’ was a term that made grand and unjustifiable claims – that we know the laws of nature fully, and that we know the experiences that we designate as miracles and apparitions to be outside their frame. ‘Supersensual’, by contrast, only asserts that these experiences break our laws of perception and consensus reality, without making any judgement about their ultimate status. Some of Coleridge’s similar coinages, such as ‘psychosomatic’, have entered the language and are still with us; ‘supersensual’ is one that has not, but perhaps deserves to have done.
Four years after his notebook entry in Malta, Coleridge made his most sustained attempt to describe this new territory, in a pair of conjoined essays. The first trained his psychological lens on one of the most famous ‘supernatural’ events in the Christian canon; the second, in a classic Coleridgean trajectory, brought the subject back to himself, and his fine-grained self-observation.
The first essay was entitled Luther’s Visions in the Warteburg, and examined in detail one of the founding myths of Protestantism: that Martin Luther, imprisoned in the Warteburg castle in 1521, had been visited by the Devil while translating the New Testament into German, and had banished him by throwing his inkstand at him. Coleridge himself had visited the castle, towering on its cliff above the town of Eisenach, and had been shown the incorruptible black spot where Luther’s ink had hit the wall, and where “the said marvellous blot bids defiance to all the toils of the scrubbing brush, and is to remain a sign for ever”. Coleridge was prepared to leave to the reader’s judgement “whether the great man did ever throw his inkstand at his Satanic Majesty”; he proposed instead to anatomise Luther’s visions in same way that he had his own.
He began, as his self-investigations so often began, in the stomach. Luther was not starving in a dungeon; on the contrary, he was “treated with every kindness”, including a much richer diet than he was accustomed to, which “had begun to undermine his former unusually strong health”. He recorded “many and most distressing effects of indigestion”, with which Coleridge was quick to identify – “the common effect of deranged digestion in men of sedentary habits, who are at the same time intense thinkers” – and to extrapolate from Luther’s unaccustomed luxury to an explanation for him being “plagued with temptations both from the flesh and the devil”. The nervous effects of his indigestion would have been most pronounced, as Coleridge’s own were, in his “unconscious half-sleeps, or rather those rapid alterations of the sleeping with the half-waking state, which is the true witching time” – or, in a more expressive phrase, “the fruitful matrix of ghosts”. In these Luther might, as the author had done in the saloon in Valeta, “have had a full view of the room in which he was sitting”, with walls, floor, writing-table, pen, paper and inkstand all clearly perceived, and “at the same time a brain-image of the devil, vivid enough to have acquired apparent outness”, superimposed upon the background, its subtly shifting tones and contours suggesting perhaps, to Luther, not illusion but supernatural origin.
This explanation lacks the multifactoral subtlety of Coleridge’s dissection of his own visions, and it seems that some of his readers may have commented as much, as he followed it up with a second piece, apologising that “the theory of Luther’s apparitions [was] stated perhaps too briefly in the preceding essay” – and adding, with a parodic touch of self-pity, that “I will endeavour to make my ghost theory more clear to those of my readers, who are fortunate enough to find it obscure in consequence of their own good health and unshattered nerves”. This is the cue for an exquisite description of an optical effect that he used to observe regularly as the winter dusk descended on his study in Keswick, and the fire in his hearth, reflected in his window, began to superimpose itself on the darkening lake and valley outside. The fire emerged as daylight faded, suspended in the distant landscape; as darkness came on, it seemed to grow closer and more dominant, until the arrival of night, when “the window became a perfect looking-glass; save only that my books on the side shelves of the room were lettered, as it were, on their backs with stars”. Here was an optical mechanism for “the phantom from Luther’s brain” that might have played into the fruitful matrix of ghosts: the inkstand might, like the port decanter in Malta, have been a hitherto unnoticed foreground detail that nevertheless had “a considerable influence in the production of the fiend, and of the hostile act by which his obtrusive visit was repelled”.
To this optical effect must, as ever, be added the state of mind of the observer, and the human readiness to craft meaning from the random. “If we are in anxious expectation”, for example, “the babbling of a brook will appear to be the voice of a friend, for whom we are waiting, calling out our own names”. These are not simply mechanical errors of perception. They are the products of our minds, which are always working subconsciously to shape the reality around us; supersensual visions are the moments when we catch them up to their constant but otherwise unnoticed tricks. By such increments Coleridge works his way towards the beginnings of a unified theory, the “great law of the imagination”, that “a likeness in part tends to become a likeness of the whole”: the brain is always busy recognising, replicating, expanding, extemporising and filling in the gaps. Under the right circumstances, humble decanters and inkstands can morph into human or demonic entities, at which point they may do anything that such entities might be expected to do: walk, speak, wear evening dress or waggle their pointed tails. Visions are no aberration, but an insight into the ways in which our minds are constantly extrapolating, stitching together a plausible reality from whatever fragments are to hand, in a restless search for patterns that fit the established pigeon-holes of memory and belief.
There is much more that follows from this – nothing less than a new psychology – but, having tantalised himself and the reader, Coleridge announces reluctantly that he is unable to do it justice. “I have long wished to devote an entire work to the subject of dreams, visions, ghosts and witchcraft”, he insists, and “I have indeed a memorandum-book filled with records of these phaenomena, many of them interesting as facts and data for psychology, and affording some valuable materials for a theory of perception and its dependence on memory and the imagination”. But the death of his collaborator on these theories, the gifted and tragic pottery heir Tom Wedgwood, makes it too painful to pursue – or, perhaps, Coleridge is aware that his insights amount to no more than flashes and fragments that he can stitch together with greater or lesser conviction in his own head, but which he fears will unravel if he attempts to order them and bring them to the page.
Yet if Coleridge abandoned his direct assault on ghosts and visions, his researches nevertheless fed into the restless stream of his theories of the imagination, and particularly its implications for poetry, literature and drama. “In certain sorts of dreams” he noted, “the dullest wight becomes a Shakespeare”: but how can these supersensual effects, created so richly and seamlessly by the mind, be replicated by the writer? He continued to develop the idea that the imagination was not merely a mechanical process, but an organic one, where thoughts and ideas were diffused, recombined and recreated; his favoured analogy became that of a plant, something that develops from a small seed into something far greater than the sum of its parts, transcending the energies that produced it and evolving its own inner life.
These investigations led him to one of his most enduring coinages, the “willing suspension of disbelief”, or “suspended state”, that poetry or drama must evoke to allow the reader or viewer to believe in characters and scenes that are “supernatural, or at least romantic”. This is an effect that is achieved by a mixture of external scene-setting and careful, often subconscious priming of the audience’s expectations and imaginations: these conditions, like those that precede waking visions, combine to make the observer receptive to supersensual effects that spill out of reality’s habitual confines. Coleridge’s ‘great law of the imagination’ was never codified, but neither was it entirely abandoned: it was merely folded into his literary theories, where it vegetated, hybridised and absorbed new sustenance. It emerged as ‘willing suspension of disbelief’: the subliminal compact between subject and object that allows the observer to engage their own imagination, to finesse a middle ground between scepticism and belief, and thus to transform illusion into reality – whether reading Kubla Khan, watching Hamlet, or calmly observing the apparition of a Mr. Dennison across a library table.