AESTHETICS OF TOUCH IN TENNYSON’S IN MEMORIAM AND WILDE’S DE PROFUNDIS

By Suvendu Ghatak

Abstract
This paper closely reads Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis together in terms of the depiction of the sensory experience of ‘touch’ that goes beyond the employment of tactile imagery towards a formulation of haptic perception in these very different texts. This reconfiguration of the perceptual field from the more conventional visual mode to the haptic is historically concurrent with the decline in faith in the Post-Darwinian era. It also reflects recent scientific discoveries in Optics. A sense of man as a finite being without the promise of an eternal afterlife seems to accentuate the desire for felt experience and the immediacy of touch captures it. In the texts discussed, art becomes the suitable mode of sustaining that desire without giving in to the outmoded dogmas of religion. It is especially significant because in the Victorian age the social function of art was at times emphasized at the expense of the personal. In the case of both Tennyson and Wilde ‘touch’ becomes a template for reconciling the personal with the impersonal in the aesthetic domain. Aesthetics as fundamentally a domain of sensory cognition is very pertinent in this context, and is explored in this paper in relation to its etymology and usage. It suggests an intrinsic relationship between a haptic aesthetics and the finitude of man at the end of the nineteenth century.


 

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam is generically inserted in the traditions of classical pastoral elegy on the one hand and Christian conversion narrative on the other. An intensely personal poem mourning and commemorating the untimely death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, it has occupied a significant place in Victorian public discourse regarding doubt and faith, scientific discoveries and its possible conciliation with religious beliefs. The poet sets out to justify the long poem over a personal loss in an era of successive social movements by defining an aesthetic consciousness as distinct from practical consciousness, and yet of seminal importance. And the Victorian poet was located in an era when the recent discoveries of evolutionary biology and geology as well as the emphasis on the social function of poetry made any such claim tentative at most. The aesthetic consciousness could not rely on the traditional arguments on immortality of art or certainty of Salvation to herald the advent of a crowning race. The artistic self was painfully aware of its family resemblance with ape, etched in the body, thanks to the ideas of Darwin, in circulation long before Origin of Species was published. Solace of faith was only available to naive believers. The question of aesthetics had to be posited on this subsoil of the finitude of man.

 

I will discuss this poem with De Profundis, an epistle written by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas between January and March 1897, close to the end of his imprisonment in Reading Gaol. Here Wilde tries to capture the ‘Spirit’ that eschews ‘the articulate utterances of men and things’ in terms of haptic perception of the suffering humanity. His antinomian ideas about Christ as an individualist and an artist lead him to reconfigure his aesthetic credo with sorrow as the ‘supreme emotion’ in order to perfectly attune form and content: ‘What the artist is looking for is a mode of existence in which soul and body are one and indivisible: in which the outward is expressive of the inward: in which form reveals’[1]. However, this desire for the ‘Spirit’ does not seek religion as its objective. Wilde does not try to establish an aesthetics of belief that can dictate the preordained course of life through art. Rather aesthetic experience is defined as spiritually transformative, comparable to the presence of Christ: ‘he is just like a work of art. He does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something.’[2] And this transformative agency does not lie in any transcendental being beyond the domain of human suffering. An intense suffering shared through art leads one close to the experience of the divine. This relationship between human suffering and aesthetic experience once again points to the determining factor of the finitude of man.

 

This finitude makes the corporeality of the body centrally important, unlike the intelligence of a Cartesian cogito that bears an imprint of God and accesses the domain of ideas after a traceless removal of sense perceptions. An exploration of the mode of sense perception deployed in the poem becomes the key to the aesthetic consciousness circumscribed within the finitude. It is perhaps closer to what Maurice Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and the Invisible calls the ‘empirical pregnancy’ which displaces the subject/object binary with the logic of ‘flesh’. Merleau-Ponty, in a significant way, exemplifies the primacy of a perceptual field to any designation of subject and object, as a corporeal interplay of two hands: ‘Through this crisscrossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves into the universe they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it.’[3] The body is not posed as the origin of perception: ‘(…) but it is as if it were built around the perception that dawns through it.’ He also distinguished the lived body, produced within a network of historical correspondences that make up the field of perception, from the physical body that biology proposes to study as a thematizable object. This ‘flesh’ cannot be thought precisely because it is the blind spot of reason, the invisible corporeality underlining all speculation. If it has remained absent in the philosophical tradition, the centrality of haptic perception in the texts discussed in the paper makes one wonder whether one has to consider the construction of an aesthetic domain as the privileged space of its emergence.

 

The sense organ predominantly associated with this perception is touch, as will be illustrated in the latter part of the paper. The sense of touch has been identified as the deepest one by Democritus. Aristotle allies it with common sense and declares it as one indispensable for the maintenance of life and yet susceptible to the grossest sensations in De Sensu et Sensibilibus and elsewhere. He locates it in the interior in order to avoid localizing it to a particular organ, unlike the other senses. While the optic has often been allied with pure intelligibility, as in the ‘natural light’ of Descartes, the haptic has been understood as the most sensible and corporeal of perceptions. The difference between long distance disembodied vision and immediate tactile perception has been underscored by art critics like Herder or closer to our time by Alois Riegl or Deleuze and Guattari. And although aesthetics as a branch of philosophy is generally understood to focus on the visual aspect of art objects, the etymological suggestions of ‘aesthetics’ relate to sensory cognition as such. Seremetakis in her etymological reflections notes that aesthema (emotion-feeling) and aesthetiki which comes to be aesthetics are both derived from aesthenome which is translated as a sensory grasp or understanding. The relationship between sense perception and aesthetics seems to be intrinsic.[4]

 

The central image of hand-clasping resonates throughout In Memoriam as the pointer of the movement from the despair of irreparable loss to the jubilation at a regained intimacy. This intimacy vindicates the aesthetic enterprise rather than the traditional arguments about memory and the immortality of the soul that are constantly undercut in the poem through references to the recent scientific discoveries. Consider this vital shift in the haptic perception of the companion poems: poem 7 and poem 119, for instance. In the earlier poem a distraught poet laments his loss: ‘A hand that can be clasp’d no more –’[5], whereas in the latter poem the loss is overcome in the identical setting as: ‘I take the pressure of thine hand’, enabling the poetic persona a glimpse into the happy memory. This encounter is beyond flesh; yet the images have strong sensory overtones and suggest the embodied nature of such an experience. This ‘touch’ from the memory can be contrasted with the luminous ‘eternal landscape from the past’, illuminated by the beacon of unearthly love in section 46 that is essentially separated from the present moment. Interestingly enough, the regaining of an intimate and immediate touch is accompanied by the olfactory sensation of the meadow in a street of a sleeping city and a visual one of the friend’s bright eye. The way the sense of touch accommodates other modes of sense perception points to the complex interdependence of the various senses in aesthetic experience. Deleuze and Guattari have argued against any simple opposition between optical and tactile sensations and preferred the term ‘haptic’ over ‘tactile’ to denote the entire field of sensory perceptions.[6] And the entire range of references to this haptic perception is very broad. The ‘hand’ reaches out through ‘time’ (section 72) and ‘nature’ (section 124). This perception makes a personal poem of mourning an expiatory public poem. The disturbing dreams of section 69: ‘I dreamed there would be spring no more,’ captures the expiatory function of the poetic persona who, in his personal grief, suffers for humanity: ‘The fool that wears a crown of thorns’. The poet becomes a Christ figure, a solitary individual who can share his suffering through art and touch all the hearts in pain. And as the dead friend touches the thorns they turn into laurel leaves, anticipating the crowning ceremony of the poet laureate to be

He reach’d the glory of a hand
That seem’d to touch it into leaf

 

The poet can rely on ‘No visual shade of someone lost’; he urges the soul of the dead to ‘Descend and touch and enter’. Apart from the possible homoerotic overtones, this reliance on haptic sensation over the optic one is quite remarkable in an aesthetics dominated by ocularcentrism. This cannot simply be subsumed within the Christian tradition because demand for a felt experience is famously allied with scepticism in the account of the Apostle Thomas. Thomas’s famous doubt of the Resurrection without touching Christ’s wounds is invoked, especially by the Protestant theologians to assert the superiority of faith alone although it is also associated with proving the veracity of the gospels and the importance of the relics, especially in the Catholic tradition. In a significant section of oem 85 in In Memoriam the poet alters Michaelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam to evoke the sense of the friend’s death:

God’s finger touch’d him, and he slept.

The original fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel emphasizes the ambivalence of touch fixed in terms of a visual image; the proximity or distance between the figures left to the interpretation of the spectator. The concurrence of touch and death in Tennyson makes the poetry of mourning an ethical act of reaching out to the dead friend through affective imagination, impossible in life. Tennyson through his poetry traverses the conventionally religious journey from suffering to expiation with less than complete belief in the Christian narrative of salvation.

 

This can be compared to the presence of Christ as understood by Oscar Wilde in De Profundis that is aesthetically and ethically uplifting without being didactic. He declares the necessity of rituals even for an agnostic. He finds in the figure of Christ a perfect amalgamation of romanticism and Hellenism. Hilary Fraser in Beauty and Belief: Aesthetics and Religion in Victorian Literature has discussed Wilde’s engagement with the problem of finding a stable self, necessary for demanding the liberation of the individual while recognizing its limits. Wilde accepts the Greek ideal of self-realization as ‘the first achievement of knowledge’ but asserts: ‘But to recognize that the soul of man is unknowable is the ultimate achievement of wisdom.’[7] A sense of the self in flux created through succeeding experiences and understood through an exploration of the impressions left by them made the individualist intensely aware of his surroundings. He finds no place for himself in society and seeks refuge in Nature. However, the shared experience of suffering links the artist with the rest of the humanity not only because it may bring a healing effect but because: ‘There is nothing that stirs in the whole world of thought to which sorrow does not vibrate in terrible and exquisite pulsation.’[8] Religion and morality do not give him solace. He sets up the aesthetic experience as an alternative to that of religion in terms of haptic immediacy and the actuality of the finitude of man:

The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at. My gods dwell in temples made with hands: and within the circle of actual experience is my creed made perfect and complete:[9]

Wilde makes evident the claim of the aesthetic to the place held by religion in an age when belief in religious truths was faltering. Wilde’s understanding of the self in flux reflects Merleau-Ponty’s argument about the underlying faith in an anonymous perceptual field, where one’s body is never self-present and is always taking newer configurations. Merleau-Ponty’s theorization of humanity as ‘one flesh’ possessing a flexing coherency in the network of relational bodies also depends on an imaginary of ‘vulnerability’ as Wilde’s ‘suffering’.  Only an aesthetic realization of shared ‘suffering’ can reconcile the ‘faith’ inseparable from notions of ‘individuality’ with an awareness of man’s finite actuality.

 

This concomitance of the consciousness of the finitude of man and a haptic mode of perception by two very different writers in works separated by decades is quite remarkable. In Tennyson this relation is certainly more oblique with the confident proclamation of a ‘far-off divine event’, the coming of the crowning race towards which the whole ‘creation moves’. But these proclamations are ambiguous at best, as the history of the change in the reception of the poem testifies. As Carlisle Moore in ‘Faith, Doubt and Mystical Experience in In Memoriam’ puts it: ‘From being held as a noble poem of faith despite its admixture of doubt, In Memoriam came to be defended as a moving poem of doubt despite its unconvincing faith.’ Moore notes the mystical contacts recorded in the poem without accounting for the haptic nature of such encounters. He also notes how Tennyson’s conversion narrative falls short of completion, ‘at least in the Wesleyan sense’[10]. The reassurance found in the immediacy of touch, on the other hand, refers back to the Greek roots of the word ‘haptic’, which was introduced into the English language in late 19th century, according to Oxford Dictionaries: haptikos: ‘able to touch or grasp’, from haptein: ‘fasten’. Tennyson’s poems in In Memoriam find in haptic perception both a modality of arrangement into a whole as well as a spiritual anchorage.

 

In the nineteenth century, research in optics transformed the notion of light from emission and corpuscular optics to its divergence into electromagnetism and physiological optics in the works of Michael Faraday among others. Light parted company with vision and visibility in a sense. It may have had profound impact on the configurations of the perceptual field dominated by vision and led to the recognition of the corporeal and embodied nature of all perceptions. The historical location of the two texts discussed in this paper make them a privileged space for an understanding of the historical reconfiguration of a more inclusive sensory cognition as such in domains constructed to be ‘aesthetic’. The affective modes and aspirations of this domain parallel that of religion in earlier epochs and can be understood to be vitally dependant on the displacement of religious beliefs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

[1] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis,  (www.gutenberg.org/files/921/921-h/921-h.htm, accessed on 22 March, 2015)

 

[2]Ibid.

 

[3]Maurice Merlauu-Ponty, ‘The Interwining – The Chiasm,’ The Continental Aesthetics Reader (London: Rouledge, 2000), p. 166.

 

[4]C. Nadia Seremetakis, The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture and Modernity (Westview: Oxford, 1994), p.5.

 

[5]Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam, (https://ia902604.us.archive.org/8/items/inmemoriambyalfr00tennuoft/inmemoriambyalfr00tennuoft.pdf, accessed on 22 March, 2015)
[6] G. Deleuze and F.Guattari . A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone, 1998), pp. 544-546.

 

[7] Hilary Fraser, Beauty and Belief: Aesthetics and Religion in Victorian Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 183-228.
[8] Wilde, De Profundis, (www.gutenberg.org/files/921/921-h/921-h.htm, accessed on 22 March, 2015)

 

[9]Ibid.

 

[10] Carlisle Moore, Faith, Doubt and Mystical Experience in “In Memoriam”. Victorian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Dec., 1963), pp. 155-169, Indiana University (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3825084, accessed 22 March, 2015)


Suvendu Ghatak has done his undergraduate from Ramakrisna Mission Residential College, Narendrapurb and is currently a postgraduate student in the department of English, Jadavpur University. He is particularly interested in the Age of Enlightenment, Contemporary Messianic thinking and ethical import of poststructuralism. He also likes the writings of Foucault, Coetzee and Kundera and is interested in nineteenth century studies.

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