The Ancient Mariner Goes Hollywood

(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 realisticworlds 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

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  1. ghosts of capitalism past, present and yet to come: the plan | metax‎‎ý

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