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Willing Suspense: Life-Writing and the Time of Action

  • Author(s): Ketz, Charity Corine
  • Advisor(s): Duncan, Ian
  • et al.
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Willing Suspense: Life-Writing and the Time of Action


Charity Corine Ketz

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Ian Duncan, Chair

Willing Suspense: Life-Writing and the Time of Action investigates the claims of two Romantic-era poets—William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—both of whom make the general form of cognition central to their autobiographies (The Prelude and Biographia Literaria respectively), both of whom contend that poetic form reveals and stylizes the temporal manner of our knowing, and both of whom connect the contemplation of poetry’s and cognition’s inner structure with psychic healing and ethical amelioration. When Wordsworth depicts the interpretive significance of an enduring perception changing at regular intervals or when Coleridge argues that our perceptions are a function of the partitions of time in which we perceive, they maintain that perceptual relativity itself indicates species being and the regular act of the mind in relating itself. As perception has propriety, as it relates itself, it also emerges as an affective response to a world that seems turned toward the perceiver or not. This value can in turn be re-described poetically, especially through poetic meter. For both poets, to contemplate temporal form, or the periodicity of thinking as it unfolds, or the symbolic nature of meter is to contemplate and become what we are. For Coleridge, we can describe human identity as a suspense: a continuous movement whose terminus both is and is not included in any description we might give; poetry is a formal means by which we become aware of our form. For Wordsworth, the pleasureable rhythms of our thought indicate the rhythms of the cosmos and our place in it. The suspense of one’s momentary personality induced by reading, and especially by meter’s simulation of cognitive regularity, may catalyze a psychic return to perceptual wholeness which, similarly, belongs to us at all times and yet may be obscured.

Part of what we find in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s respective autobiographies and broad poetics is a manner of understanding time and its relation to personal identity that runs counter to the medieval, early modern, and postmodern understanding of this relation as expressing loss, contingency, and instability. It also runs counter to a well-established narrative linking the rise of historicism in the eighteenth century with the rise of individualizing forms and an outpouring of personal narratives. In conducting their autobiographies from the point of view of ongoingness—in which the autobiographer has not, so to speak, turned around to see what he once was—and in promoting the recurrent structure of thinking and the various, reiterating shapes in which it emerges, Wordsworth and Coleridge deliberately turn toward the general and instantiate a mode of autobiography radically unlike those autobiographies (from Rousseau’s Confessions to Mary Prince’s History) that give an account of an unique personality or of particular social relations (and abuses).

The outpouring of autobiographies in the eighteenth century also coincided with the rise of epistemology as a science; and the double facing of autobiography encapsulates its central question about what knowledge is and how it is known. Willing Suspense contends that there are two major modes of autobiography—retrospective and prospective—which can be distinguished by their temporal orientation, objects, and mood.

Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s autobiographies are prospective in that the parameters of thinking are continually present (for the autobiographers as for their readers) and in that The Prelude and Biographia depict the anticipatory cast of sensation. Their objects are thus common in two senses: for they involve the general finding of relational being in the world. And their mood is one of confidence—that we can understand the world and our manner of harmonizing with it. Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s autobiographies are not, however, anomalies. They share important ground with Augustine’s Confessions and Proust’s À la recherche.

They also emerge as part of a larger response to the figure of thought that dominated eighteenth-century literary culture: that of the disengaged and belated spectator. As a figure based on a rift between thinking and being, this spectator faced backward and sought something categorically different from itself and hence something unknowable.

Opposing this figure, and hence, facing forward, was another figure of knowing, one that understood knowing as an action contemporaneous with itself. Locke equated knowing with the individual’s appropriative act and so with actual and relational rather than possible forms; Baumgarten newly applied the term “aesthetic” to the realm of sensate (present, temporal, anticipatory, and analogic) knowing, describing it as completing logical (or necessary) knowledge. Kierkegaard described all existential interpretation as conditioned by a prior, orienting decision to judge past actions or to hold oneself presently, continuously accountable—which is also to say, he figured interpretation as a manner of temporal orientation. Influenced indirectly by the Romantics, Bergson, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, described the anticipatory, periodic, relational nature of perception and defined the qualitative nature of time in contrast to the over-extension of the spatial law of continuity.

Contemporary theorists of autobiography frequently describe this genre in terms of the creative deployment of available cultural myths, as just one form that the creation of a fictive effect (the feeling that there is an object corresponding with the text) may take, or as the (motivated) possible convergence of aesthetics and history. In so doing, autobiographical theory repeats and enlarges upon the gestures made by autobiographers like Rousseau and De Quincey without thereby grasping autobiography’s essential, equivocal form. For to argue, for example, that autobiography attempts to merge aesthetics and history is merely to repeat that it is a rhetorical construction aimed at something categorically different which cannot be an object of knowledge (and perhaps to add that, as such, it reflects upon the fact that all knowledge is similarly built on a retrojection).

The Prelude and Biographia instantiate a prospective mode of autobiography, and the presence of this mode, in addition to a retrospective one, re-illuminates autobiography’s vantage and shows that it poses a far more complex question than that of the legitimacy or inevitability of our tendency to collapse aesthetic constructing and presumed historical objects. Willing Suspense argues that genre is fundamentally an epistemological rather than an aesthetic or historical category and that autobiography in particular asks us how knowledge shall be known: prospectively or retrospectively, confidently or skeptically, generally or particularly, and as a matter of an individual’s act of harmonizing or as a matter of her free construction.

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This item is under embargo until November 7, 2021.