116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Esemplastic Memory

Nan Darbous Marthaller, American Military University

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about the importance of memory 200 years ago. By comparing the opinions of Coleridge in Biographia Literaria with the philosophical theories of Bergson, there is an opportunity to better understand the consciousness from which creative energy flows and perhaps in so doing, appreciate the “esemplastic” meanderings of Coleridge at a deeper level.

Proposal: 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about the importance of memory 200 years ago in his autobiographical work, Biographia Literaria. The importance of these musings is not memory as most people think about memory—the memory that recalls facts and figures and other miscellany—but the esoteric, intuitive spark that reaches beyond the physical brain to the “Fancy” or the “nisus vitalis” in the words of Coleridge or the “élan vital” as described by Henri Bergson. The inner voice of “Fancy” that frees the will and transports human consciousness beyond the boundaries of the material world is the inspiration that Coleridge attempts to capture and explain. By comparing the creative opinions of Coleridge with the philosophical theories of Bergson there is an opportunity to better understand the consciousness from which creative energy flows.

To explore the concepts of “esemplastic” memory in Biographia Literaria, Coleridge’s definition of imagination and Fancy will be compared with Bergson’s theories of “pure memory” while further examining the term “esemplastic” as defined by Coleridge. Whereas Coleridge is known for his poetry and the Romantic era that he helped define, his theological and philosophical background shaped many of his creative works and is the basis for much of his consideration in Biographia Literaria. Using Henri Bergson’s theory of memory as the comparative foundation for the ideological concepts Coleridge espouses, there is opportunity to better understand creative intuition.

In his work Creative Evolution, Bergson provides his ideas about the intellect, thought, illusion and his concept of “élan vital” for which he is best known. His work regarding the “creative mind” and memory supports, and in some ways, mirrors the ideas of Coleridge in Biographia Literaria especially when considering Coleridge’s term “esemplastic” as it relates to imagination.

Bergson provides his theory of memory through the dualism of spirit and matter defining the different forms of memory and their functions by separating them from what he calls “pure memory” which is not part of the body rather of spirit. And, like Coleridge, Bergson explores the need to form or unify two concepts as one. Not only did Bergson propose there are two kinds of memory, Coleridge posits that there are two kinds of imagination, but both philosophers postulate that these opposite forces share a certain commonality, a unification or “esemplastic” memory where imagination and intuition are joined with reality. Moving into these collective states of imagination gives us a sense of our humanity.

In Biographia Literaria Coleridge informs the reader of his past and his philosophies in his own words or word, literally. His grasp of language, as well as philosophical, scientific, and theological theories is coupled with his often random and chaotic poetic voice. At times there is a sense that Coleridge is informing his reader and other times that he is informing himself.

The insight of Bergson offers a framework by which Biographia Literaria can provide an opportunity to better understand the consciousness from which creative energy flows and perhaps in so doing, appreciate the “esemplastic” meanderings of Coleridge at a deeper level.