work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

The Ancient Mariner Goes Hollywood

01.05.2010 · Posted in Uncategorized

(this is a follow-up to my last post on Kierkegaard and romantic consumption which ends on a reference to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner)

Yesterday I listened in to the “Vox Project” on Radio 4, a programme on voice over artists, one of whom mentioned Don La Fontaine as the inventor of the “In a world…”  phrase. This phrase, as has his obituary on CNN, was ‘used by seemingly dozens of movies determined to create an otherworldly atmosphere’. It is telling: For those in that world it is the world and hence inescapable; they have to act within its iron laws of causality – while for the viewer/listener it is just a world, not the world. Actually it’s not so difficult to imagine Don La Fontaine doing a trailer for the Ancient Mariner. Imagine a

‘world of a hard moral law. There exists a ruthless code of justice, under which a trivial act – like shooting a bird or eating a piece of fruit – can earn a dreadful punishment.’ (McDonald 1964: 547)

Coleridge’s sailor despairs under, as literary critic Daniel McDonald put it, ‘too much reality’. His narrative is “epic” in Bakhtinian terms as it has no open future, is final, fixed as opposed to the openness to the future, the potentiality of the novel.

‘As he carries this message of reality through the world, the Mariner acts in the tradition of Old Testament prophets who invaded civilized societies with a message of savage truth.’ (McDonald 1964: 549)

This is in stark contrast with the Wedding Guest who is, basically, a consumer.

‘He is the archetype of one living a frivolous, surface existence, ignoring the deeper realities. The wedding is a key symbol here. First, it is a formal convention, a means of masking the several mysteries of sex, instinct and animality – mysteries which the Mariner faced in seeing the rearing water-snakes and the thousand slimy things. Second, a wedding is a religious ceremony, a means of masking the fearful reality of supernatural presences – a reality which the Mariner faced in his relation to Life in Death, “a troop of spirits blest,” the Polar Spirit etc. Significantly, the surface nature of the Wedding Guest is emphasized even more. He is not a part of the wedding, only a guest. He is not at the religious ceremony; he is going to a gay party which follows it.’ (McDonald 11964: 550)

By consuming a narrative the Wedding Guest/Moviegoer avoids the despair of the superficial ritualised existence of the philistine, by anchoring his imagination in realistic worlds he avoids the despair of the fantasist, and by not being deeply touched and temporarily totally absorbed – but remaining outside the epic reality, he avoids the tragic despair of having a destiny. The romantic technique of imaginative hedonism makes sure that the move from “ceremony” to “art” in constructing masks and selves (Plessner) does on collapse in one-dimensional immediacy. He can reconnect to all those “mysteries” of animal existence, without being reduced to it. Such immediacy would be intolerable – which is why for the Mariner

‘even death would be welcome. He cannot bear any more reality.’ (McDonald 1964: 553)

The Wedding Guest gains depth, is affected, changed – but not trapped in a world. He has many worlds (precisely because he has less reality). He therefore is envied by the Mariner who

‘rather than coming proudly and courageously to challenge the Wedding Guest’s superficial philosophy, the Mariner says explicitly that he would prefer it.’ (McDonald 1964: 553)


McDonald, Daniel (1964): ‘Too Much Reality: A Discussion of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, in: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol.4, No.4, pp.543-54

Update 6th January 2010

Prompted by Daniel Smith’s comment (see below) I’ve take a couple of books from the shelf and found that C. M. Bowra already saw “imaginative realism” at work in the Ancient Mariner:

‘It is clear that Coleridge felt about the creations of his im

3 Responses to “The Ancient Mariner Goes Hollywood”

  1. Daniel Smith says:

    I feel this ‘in a world’ is also the Romantic aspect of the tourist (or the merlin phenomenon as a new consumer Utopia – this time merlin is the outsider, the guest…). But what about the character of the consumer and their narrative? i.e. why does the wedding guest arrive, what is his relation… in Lacan’s essay on Hamlet he states that in the fantasy (and its object a) the subject must be able to see himself in the fantastic scene; and the object a is just that intermittent presence of a world, but not the world; but ‘why that world’? (this is Jameson’s interpretive question, if i’ve read it correctly).

    all the best

    Maybe the Doctor is the mariner, ‘even death would be welcome’, ‘time lords live too long’.

  2. thanks for this – sounds like i really should overcome my reservations re Lacan and give him a second go some time 😉
    i certainly take your point that the reader/listener/viewer needs to see themself in the fantasy/daydream. for me the wedding guest does suspend his disbelief (and the ballad suggests: not necessarily willingly – he can’t but listen etc.) and for a time fully identifies, travels with the mariner, is on the ship…
    i would not even base this so much on the hints to his captured imagination in the poem itself but on his disappearance accounts like that by C. M. Bowra. the wedding guest is the reader’s avatar in the poem – and the mariner is the wedding guest’s avatar. so through him the reader is absorbed into the mariner’s adventure and therefore, as mere vehicle, does not draw much critical attention. so oddly Coleridge gets away with the implausibility of what in itself is the physically most realistic, but sociologically most improbable part of the poem: the encounter of a gentleman with a mad sailor (probably drunk…) that results in a conversation. in contrast the mariner’s tale is constructed in a way that makes the most fantastic course of events look – and more importantly: feel – real. (see the Bowra qte in the update above). Bowra refers to a collective experience of the audience – suggesting a realistic/imaginative interaction as suggested by Currie:
    ‘Most of us, when we read “The Ancient Mariner,” are content to respond to its magic and to ask no questions about any ulterior purpose or symbolic significance that it may have. It lives so fully by its own rules in its own world that it seems impertinent to ask for more.’ (Bowra 1950: 65)
    If “we” are so (literally!) taken in by the account – that surely must apply to our representative listener within the poem as well!
    that (for both listener inside and reader outside) it is only a world is confirmed by the enjoyable nature of the poem (i take it that Bowra 1950: 66 here correctly assesses the pleasurable experience people get from it who are less poetically challenged than i am…).

    “why that world”? – i.e. the question: which buttons does the author need to press, what experiences does the author need to link up to in order to absorb the reader… goes beyond the formalism of my version of the romantic-consumerism thesis (i still haven’t read up on Jameson yet…)

    finally agree: the mariner probably is an ancestor of the doctor (who as we now know has a few bodies under the carpet as well) – which makes his female sidekicks descendants of the wedding guest who now can, thanks to advances in imagined technology, can actually go on and return from the epic journeys… (time lords live too long for their own good – but they can’t live long enough for us)

  3. Daniel Smith says:

    re: Jameson … his question which moves from formalism (and his polemics on the Russian formalists) toward a hermeneutic approach can easily stand in relation to your account of the mariner (or at least i think it can) for his point is that ‘the why’ comes from the historical reality which is ‘always-already’ articulated in literary production (in the fullest sense: from syntax, grammar, semantics, form dissolved into content but also materiality of the text (paperback, paper type if you want …) but the text itself makes a immanent dialouge (or is ‘dialogical’ following Bahktin) with social antagonism inherent within the society the text is a product and producer of – this point does go beyond the Campbell Romantic ethic thesis but it does allow us to account for ‘why this commodity form-content’. For instance: ‘in a world’ is a very good ideological object for it allows for a suspension of belief in a fully shared, collective representation; a social imaginary as cas would call it.

    re: mariner’s despair – he despairs from lack of a way ‘out of the world’ and Jameson claims that this is the true ‘worldness’ of the romantic narrative as the mise-en-scene absorbs the characters (not the guests!) into the narrative as a ‘total closure’ of possibilities; he would very much agree with you here. But, re: escaping the world, he is much more marx-qua-lacan (hence my attraction to his writing) so he claims that the worldness of the text is easily escaped due to the social reality unto which we are producers and consumers (‘species being?’ maybe …) and claims the identification with the text is an ‘aesthetic (mythic) resolution’ to a deadlock (marx’s primitive accumulation; lacan’s object a) so the articulated message to the reader is the formal resolution to a contradiction inherent within society … my point is that i agree with the voice over ‘in a world’ (and it links into the new way films are produced (this is jamesons point) for they are now ‘meta-generic productions’ not ‘epics’ (in the Bahktinian sense).

    Thanks for the reply.

    p.s. your reservation on ‘literary marxism’ will not be encountered by reading jameson’s political unconcious or his essays ‘signatures of the visible’ … (his ‘postmodernism or the cultural logic’ is strangely the best know but least accessible, but tony has made some very fruitful use of it in his papers on postmodern cultural practice; his paper on serial killer novels is a good example!); plus, jameson’s marxism is a marxism written in a polemic against althusser.

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