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Essay

Coleridge’s “Christabel” – An Awakening That Doesn’t Speak

Coleridge’s “Christabel”

– An Awakening That Doesn’t Speak

 

Written and translated by: Jelena Ćirić

In something over 670 lines, divided into two parts, each with a poet’s short versed commentary, the poem “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge addresses a formative nocturnal adventure of a young noblewoman Christabel. Around midnight, haunted by a dream about her fiancé, she departs from her castle into a wood to pray under an oak tree. There, she finds a beautiful and fragile girl named Geraldine, who confesses her story of a victimhood. The same night, she relates, five unknown warriors abducted and possibly raped her.

Christabel is baffled. Accustomed to complete isolation under the patronage of her father, Sir Leoline, she likely listening to such an account for the first time in her life. According to all written and unwritten rules, she offers the girl hospitality and shelter, and brings her to the castle in silence and secrecy, so as not to disturb the sickly Leoline’s sleep. What follows is a mysterious, unexplained encounter between the two, where only one thing is certain – Geraldine manifests herself as a predatory, demonic figure. Having arranged all the preconditions to exert her influence, she seduces Christabel and, by all odds, sleeps with her1Most critics of this poem, from Coleridge’s own time through today, almost unanimously think that the two women have had sex – or something very close to sex. The thesis seems to be confirmed by Coleridge’s own gloss that he wrote at the margins of one of 18 preserved versions of the poem, in 1816. Alongside the lines that describe Geraldine’s curse, Coleridge wrote: “As soon as the wicked Bosom, with the mysterious sign of Evil stamped thereby, touches Christabel, she is deprived of the power of disclosing what had occurred.” (Stillinger 90) Two girlfriends probably wouldn’t touch each other’s bosoms for nothing.. Once it’s over, she casts a spell (or rather, a vow of silence) to prevent Christabel from speaking out.

In the morning, Geraldine meets Sir Leoline, the master of the castle. It turns out she is the daughter of his whilom friend, Roland de Vaux. The two men had a long friendship and a painful breakup. Leoline, tortured by his conscience and dolour, immediately embraces the possibility of symbolic reconciliation, and cruelly disowns his daughter the moment she humbly asked him to turn away the stranger. At that moment, the narrative flow is disrupted. The reader finds herself at a dead end, where she feels uneasiness due to the unpunished evil, perverted female victimisation, and defeated Christian compassion, which the poet couldn’t or didn’t want to make right.

The plot is so universal that it’s easy to notice its archetypal foundation: a well-guarded virgin covertly leaves an enclosed space where she had been kept. She is motivated by a natural urge of a confined being towards freedom that always comes with an unavoidable and conscious risk, since maids do not belong in woods. Her tool is disobedience – how else can one break loose from overprotection imposed both by her father and her dead mother?

The next day, in the light of day, life won’t proceed the usual way. Christabel’s father finds some kind of solace or compensation in their guest, since he’d been living under the burden of problematic past full of loss that now seems to get a resolution. The girl can’t protest because the other woman has shut her mouth. Her experience has altered and branded her, cutting her loose from her old life. There is no explaining, reconciling or compromising with the father as incarnation of the genuine state of things, because Christabel isn’t entitled to recount what had happened to her. A fissure between with the past and tradition is inevitable, since those two wouldn’t put up with transgression. Our little princess has become a woman – of her own accord, since she undertook an unholy trip into the unknown, and at her own risk. Having done the act, she stepped out of the pattern and rendered herself dispossessed. In a way, her father now sends her to bed without supper, so she could think about the potential consequences of willfulness and/or courage.

The question of her motivation and disguised incentives inspires a psychoanalytical reading; the unstable position of one or both women in between a real and a virtual male figure stimulates a feminist reading. In this poem, both the victim and the assaulter are women, in an implicitly androcentric world. It is androcentric because both women, generally speaking, are a kind of an extended, resurrected (maybe even homosexual) relationship between the two men, Leoline and Roland. Also, because the meaning and significance of both of them seem to spring from the amount to which they conform to or repudiate traditional female functions. That repudiation, which happens under the night’s cloak, comprises the displacement of Coleridge’s vision.

In its essence, the story obviously revolves around an individual coming-of-age that had been prepared for a long time, but finally and irrevocably took place in a single metaphorical night. The problem is, however, in the fact that there is nothing left after that night. As soon as it happened, the awakening was punished. Tongue-tied, Christabel now floats in an unenclosed space of her horrible secret, which seems to have found perfect embodiment in the interrupted, fragmented, incomplete ending of the poem.

 

Following one’s own wish

Christabel carries in herself an inclination towards the Other, an aspiration towards the unknown and alien. Having given in to this inclination, she wanders off into the night, not knowing what that night really is. But one thing is certain: it isn’t familiar or domestic. Her physical stepping out from a supposedly safe ground is decisive, but it isn’t the beginning of her fall. The very starting point that Christabel wants to transcend has been multiplied incapacitation. As a female offspring, Christabel is predestined to an essential passivity – according to tradition, her father would hand her over to her husband, whereupon she would have to produce a son. Always a mediator, never an actor.

However, the position of passivity always has a certain competence towards the activity that seeks to overcome and subdue it. Even if she can’t directly control the string of events from her passive position, Christabel still has an inalienable right to (dis)agree with the choices that others make for her. Incomplete and hurt as she is, Christabel also has to seek compensation in the new, since the old had proven incapable of lending her some of its supposed integrity. Therefore, she is a girl in pursuit, a girl who is open to new experience, but probably unaware that her prayer actually invites for sexual maturation as the only path towards independence. She ruminates on her fiancé while we, the observers, aren’t really sure he even exists. He too functions as just another blank function, a phantom that Christabel is summoning in the dead of night.

To understand Christabel’s predicament, we should keep in mind all of the roles that Coleridge wished to bestow upon her. She is a daughter who “killed” her mother at birth – a fact that brings about a huge potential of guilt, exchanging one life for another. What little of a family she still has is an isolated father, absent as a source of familial warmth or contact, but all too present as an authority. Defective as a daughter, burdened with the original sin that she has no license to atone for, Christabel is to give in to her new role of a bride awaiting her groom – but he too is nowhere to be found in the poem, except as an excuse for her to leave the castle. As a figure, the fiancé is Christabel’s obligation and duty, maybe even some kind of a collateral that the future might bring happiness denied to her by the present and the past alike. An unnamed knight, a delegate of his class, gender and institution, he doesn’t exist as a person.

 

Felix culpa: evil needs a helping hand

And so the poem develops into a problematic vision of a maid who reaches out for experience only to meet her own downfall. Evil didn’t permeate the castle walls without invitation. If that had happened, Christabel would have lacked the dimension of self-development. She would have been reduced to a faceless victim, and the story would have focused on evil’s direct invasion of the virtue’s stronghold. Such as it is, however, acting doesn’t happen by the forces of fatalism. On the contrary, everything happens by choice. Christabel isn’t a passive damsel in distress who would humbly accept whatever the fate happens to throw at her.

On the contrary, she takes up her chosen, demonic evil and escorts it into the protected area, passing by all clear indicators of desecration such as moaning of the mastiff bitch, the disturbed flame, the impossibility of crossing a threshold without mortal aid. Literally, the evil has been carried over a mythological barrier that it wouldn’t cross on its own. Here, Christabel is showing an almost “male” initiative, penetrating the gates and carrying her weary friend across the threshold of her home. Geraldine shows up as a perverted answer to her prayers. Once inside the castle, she starts filling in the gaps of Christabel’s life.

So far, Christabel’s activity was guided by her urge to leave the protective circle and gain new experience with which to compensate for all her ails and voids. Once she gets that, she becomes just a competent receiver of the effects that she herself had summoned. The night has covered her action and enclosed it, leaving rationalisation for the light of day. In the morning follows an attempt to summarise and illuminate all the uncertainties in front of male investigators. Sir Leoline is there to assess his daughter’s hospitality and respect for the chivalric, patriarchal code. The other man, bard Bracy, is there to vouch for Leoline’s integrity and harmony in his home, but is also a neutral messenger who is to bring the story outside the castle.

Unlike with the enigmatic but fatal transgression committed by another Coleridge’s hero, the Ancient Mariner, the problem here lies with the code that is being followed more than it was necessary. The girl took a certain freedom in understanding the Christian and chivalric principle of mercy and compassion. She overplayed her role of a hostess, allowing her guest to disturb her balance and usurp her territory. Now that the deed is done, her mouth is sealed. She doesn’t even have the possibility to atone by establishing contact with people and confessing her sins and blunders. The only battlefield she has left is her interior, silent and confined, unintelligible to the outside world. The poem, just like its heroine, seals unto itself, leaving the latter even more lonely and restricted than she had been before. The experience has defeated the innocence, and awakening won’t bring forth a new day. Christabel awakens from passivity into utter destruction. But this time, the destruction is chosen or even engendered.

Are we going to hope for the unraveling of the dilemma about Christabel’s afflicted innocence? It depends on which part of the poem we are stuck in – the enigmatic and self-sufficient first part, or verbose but unfinished second part. There is no point nor can we anticipate one. The reader remains trapped inside the poem with Christabel, side by side. Even if we remember Christabel’s erotic arousal at the sight of Geraldine’s undressing, and wish to celebrate our heroine’s liberation and coming out, we can hardly deny that Christabel is, in a way, forced back into the closet. There can be no emancipation and freedom if they aren’t loud and capable of declaring themselves.

Christabel’s “sin” is embodiment of an urge for knowledge that breeds unexpected consequences. Coleridge indicates that Christabel, a girl in search of identity, gains something that is identity without identity, since it bears an imprint of a foreign, alien element. She can’t tell us what she developed into thanks to that experience, since her speech is censored and her initial nature repressed so it could make room for the usurper. When observed that way, this gloomy psychological study doesn’t deal with resolution and leading the hero back to the atonement, as “The Ancient Mariner” does. Contrary to the Mariner, Christabel does act according to the code of Christian mercy; Geraldine’s evil can only transpire through Christabel’s good, if we agree to use these categories.

 

What follows the awakening?

The poem clearly asserts an interaction and conflict between two energies. The two participants take turns in dynamics of their two energies, one of which is decisive, and the other fluctuating between her wishes and limits. Both Christabel and Geraldine, “the lovely maid and the lady tall” (v. 393) step outside the traditionally defined gender into a functional androgyny (Palja 279). But why does this androgyny manifest itself within an entirely female confrontation?

In order to verify Christabel’s burgeoning sexuality and understand her crisis as productive, the sexual excess should lead to a successful reintegration into the very world from whose norms Christabel had run away into the uncertainty of the wood. She became a woman overnight, even if the “instigator” was another woman. She should carry this newly acquired status as a token of her proper participation in life.

What happens, however, is anything but reintegration. Christabel awakens completely consumed, confirming the power of Geraldine’s curse (vs. 267-278) as an irrevocable performative utterance. The identities aren’t mutually exchanged. On the contrary, Christabel’s identity is completely seized, together with her capability to understand and articulate it.

Hypothetically, we could assume that Geraldine is a figure that empowers Christabel by dismantling all her illusions, the greatest of which is that the mother’s protective spirit keeps lingering above her and her actions. The process would shatter the walls of childishness that had kept Christabel from getting to know the world around her. We don’t know if Christabel’s misfortune would only be temporary, or a decisive factor in her life, a sign of permanent, irreparable female silence.

Every reader of this poem has to choose from two elaborate concepts of Geraldine and therefore Christabel herself. Geraldine is either Christabel’s projection, a complex that serves to accelerate the girl’s self-development; or she is an embodiment of a radical, aggressive Otherness (maybe even a closeted, outright lesbian Otherness – discretion guaranteed!) As a literary figure, she is an eclectic mix of various traditions: mythological, Biblical and typically gothic, pre-Romantic. She is the daughter of Eva’s serpent, Gorgon Medusa, Echidna, Lamia, Empusa, Lilith, and other female creatures who embody fatal, hypertrophied sexual abomination. She nevertheless differs from all of them – if only because Coleridge decided not to disclose her chthonic mark. Geraldine enters the poem in front of our own and Christabel’s alert eyes, clad in conventional, virginally white robe, barefoot, bare-necked. She leaves the poem with Christabel’s reminiscence of a part of her secret – “old” and “cold” bosom.

Geraldine activates her hostess’s sexuality. This activation follows the conventional course of a coming-of-age story. Both participants have initially entered a quest for the Other. The aggressor finds an incomplete, unfulfilled object, which had searched and needed her. On the other hand, Christabel, having undressed, can’t sleep. Instead, she sits up to observe Geraldine. So, the “object” consciously ignores reason, tradition and taboos, and engages in the interaction until the aggressor manages to paralyse her. Until that moment, both of them are fully involved, both of them interchangeably initiate and give in to each other. Only afterwards, the relationship between the aggressor and the victim is clearly polarised, with both of them somehow enjoying this dynamic, neither of them being absolutely passive, at least until the intercourse is over.

The moment the pleasant exhibitionism was over, Christabel managed to fulfil the emptiness of her being. But now follows the second part of the bargain: she is compelled to give over her newly acquired social position of a satisfied, complete being to her partner/usurper. At that moment, Geraldine ceases to be a usurper because the referential point (Christabel who speaks) is annulled. Geraldine takes over the position of an autochthonous, functional figure in the new order. If it weren’t for the graphically separate Conclusion to Part I, which gives us a description of Christabel sleeping in the arms of her bizarre deflorator, we wouldn’t even be aware of the precious relation underlined by Coleridge himself. Namely, the enigmatic calmness of Geraldine’s face resembles the serenity of “a mother with her child” (v. 301). And there’s another uncanny element serving as a possibility for Christabel to develop her mechanism of compensation: Geraldine is possibly the first woman who has ever held Christabel in her arms. It’s an intimacy that her mother didn’t live to enact with her. (Ingmar Bergman’s film “Persona” shows a wonderful depiction of this mutual, almost vampiric consummation of two women’s identities.)

The enchanted Christabel doesn’t lose the power of speech. She only loses the power of expression. She can’t persuade her father because she fails to explain what had happened exactly. Her feeling that he wouldn’t trust her doesn’t help either. Her plea to her father, formulated as a meagre entreaty, takes a turn for the worse. The poles are turning upside down and Christabel becomes the raped and silenced Philomel, as many critics have noted. The coitus itself resembles the horrendous metamorphosis from Canto XXV of Dante’s “Inferno”, a bizarre biting of the flesh, whereupon the serpent and the man exchange their appearances and morph into each other (Taylor 64). The most bizarre moment in this image is the thin line between two bodily processes, consummation and copulation. That moment is also present in Coleridge’s gothic poem.

Geraldine is the quintessential sexuality waiting just around the corner. She always asks for an enormous price, and she always gets it. She shows up as an answer to the prayer of a girl whose world is determined by the blank functions and voids in place of content. Geraldine could also be some kind of perverted projection of all of Christabel’s wants and longings2Jonas Spatz proposes this interpretation in his essay “The Mystery of Eros: Sexual Initiation in Coleridge’s Christabel”. According to him, Christabel has made up this love encounter as part of her own sexual maturation, with complex preparations for marriage that are required at this stage in her life. She harbours ambiguous feelings towards marriage – those of anxiety, aversion, but also an erotically aroused anticipation, which breeds guilt in turn.. From the moment of “infection”, however, the narrator nearly stops mediating between the reader and Christabel’s interiority, as if the latter suddenly turned blurry or unavailable. Thus, the process of interpretation has to retract and falter.

It is very important to emphasize that Geraldine never grows into an absolute evil. Her malignity, occasionally visible but more frequently implied or assumed, tempts us to compress it into a phrase that was, after all, coined by Coleridge himself: look askance, the look of those who know but do not disclose their knowledge. Of course, that which is being kept in secret enjoys its own secrecy. If we should strive to identify the true “villain” of the poem, it would probably be Sir Leoline. Unlike Geraldine, he willingly and consciously chooses to dwell in the past, in obscure, morbid, but also highly ritualized realms of death. His world doesn’t know of present or future; both of them are replaced by unreal conditionals. Christabel runs into Geraldine’s arms because she is trying to escape the unhealthy, non-vital obsessions and restrictions imposed by her father. Ironically, he also uses Geraldine to try and rise from the world of the past and death, hoping that she would give him a chance to restore his relationship with Roland. He wants Geraldine to induce him into the real conditional. At the same time, he finds in her a substitution for his dead wife and the daughter he just got rid of, as the circumstances would have it.

 

Geraldine as a being of continuity

Finally, let’s consider the courses and directions of Christabel’s awakening that doesn’t speak.

Coleridge’s vampire, unlike most of her literary cousins and descendants, doesn’t follow death and doesn’t carry it with her. Or at least we don’t see that from what little of the poem we have. Geraldine’s eroticism, with its origins and effects, fits into George Bataille’s concept of erotism. Let me start with a word of warning. Bataille sees erotism exclusively as gender-binary dynamics, with clearly delineated poles of activity and passivity. The case of Christabel and her female lover is all the more depictive because it wipes away those boundaries. Patriarchy surrounds Christabel, but she willingly and consciously decides to leave it in front of her bedroom.

In his eponymous study, Bataille determines erotism as a relentless urge to restore the being’s continuity, which is not so much elusive as it is painfully unsustainable. A human being will never break free from painful consciousness of its own finality. The only kind of established continuity can be found in the continuum of death, and the only point in life when we are able to grasp continuity is sexual act. Bataille also introduces Christianity into this picture. It is a factor that calls on continuity by imposing prohibitions upon sex as the only palpable point where the being can meet continuity in this life. Those are precisely the crucial coordinates of Coleridge’s poem: sex, death, and the sacral.

Let’s begin with death, which stands at the beginning of Christabel’s life, and which possibly imperils her in the encounter with demonic Geraldine. In Bataille’s opinion, death establishes the line of continuity that was violently cut at birth, the same line that had been conceived in the pre-natal period. That would mean that continuity manifests itself an unknowable metaphysical longing, which is why the craving for the continuity’s manifestations (such as god or absolute union with another being) is so powerful. Death restores this continuity by interrupting the string of chaotic, discontinued conditions in which the being had wallowed. More precisely, death brings about continuity without feeling, when all susceptibility for it has already numbed (Coleridge’s sensibility, as a possible cause of Christabel’s failure and fall, could be a form of that susceptibility). It means that life and continuity are mutually exclusive. Erotism moves towards continuity insofar as it violently, ominously moves away from life.

We can expand Bataille’s concept to our own case with a question: what happens with beings who are not finite, so that their death doesn’t set them apart from existence? (Or whose death, as a nest of their continuity, extends to their whole being, devours it and thereby removes its deadly sting from it.) Maybe that’s the source of vampires’ ambiguous and irresistible attraction to vampires. It’s a continuity inherent to an undead creature. A carnal contact will transfer the illusion of that continuity to a living creature. It has to be a carnal union, for how else would an un-dead person “contaminate” the living with its continuity? Beside the aesthetic, this union always contains an element of violence. (Pop culture didn’t embrace the vampire’s love bite from late gothic literature without a reason.)

Such erotism would endow our witch or vampire Geraldine with a completely or relatively established continuity. Whether it’s complete or relative depends on her status of an arch-vampire (someone who has never been human), or an ex-human. In our case, an ex-woman, which is even more meaningful. Let’s assume that an arch-vampire is guided by her sense of her own continuity, and she needs victims to maintain it. In return, the victims will only get a life-in-death – and that can only be an illusion of continuity. (Tony Scott’s film “Hunger” presents such a case. An ancient Egyptian vampire charms her victims, drinks their blood, and gives them some kind of eternal life without eternal youth – she is the one who achieves continuity, whereas her victims remain mere victims.) A mortal’s life is a string of loosely connected, single points in time and space, any of which can be final, and all of which irresistibly gravitate towards death. With her birth, the mortal found herself in a destabilised position. It is destabilised because it used to be stable – at least for a time. Our individual carries a sigil of that former stability in her unconscious, just like one has a fuzzy but powerful idea about prenatal, protected repose, even though the experience doesn’t remember it. Anyway, these ideas result in yearning to fill in the gaps, which we clearly perceive in Christabel. The moment one steps outside the state of continuity, there is no more cohesion. There are only loosely connected moments of yearning for continuity. Christabel will unconsciously try to re-stabilise her position by way of erotism, since all other possibilities have failed, leaving her at the turning point of her maturation absolutely alone.

Here is Bataille’s depiction of death’s potency fused with the actuality of sex: “Mortal anguish does not necessarily make for sensual pleasure, but that pleasure is more deeply felt during mortal anguish. (…) Fear of dying makes us catch our breath and in the same way we suffocate at the moment of crisis.” (105) Here, Bataille refers to the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice. Thanks to its organic connection to erotism as reaching for a superhuman dignity of continuity, this ritual sacrifice causes sudden epiphanies in the form of antemortem sexual ecstasy. The phenomenon of erotic union assumes intermixture of two beings, which is prepared by undressing as a symbolical opening up towards continuity. In Bataille’s interpretation, this opening is actually an act of dispossession, since at its core is a relation different from the biological one, which had theretofore played a crucial role.

In Christabel, this erotic experience is a novelty, an exogamous move outwards, instead of the former comfortable and safe enclosure. Erotism always presumes a risk and carries an aura of potential destruction, resulting in passion, anxiety, suffering, fear. However, the destruction never happens, even though the beings are always on the edge of death; this death always hovers over their passion like an utmost, absolute form of their act, like an extreme that they will never reach. Let’s expand Bataille’s theory some more. Erotism, death, and un-death as the latter’s incomplete negation that floats in between existence and non-existence, coalesce in the appearance of a vampire as a superpotent, absolute lover. Therein we can find an explanation of that magical attraction of a vampire and his or her paralysing potential that no victim is able to resist, not even the presumably innocent – but irresistibly curious – Christabel.

Maybe Christabel has been censored, silenced, weakened by her nightly adventure. Maybe she will never manage to recover – even if her fiancé were to miraculously show up, save her from Geraldine’s magic and restore her voice, taking up his place as her official protector and establishing peace in his home and his wife3If James Gillman, Coleridge’s physician and biographer, was right, the poet considered precisely this ending to his poem. Namely, Geraldine would further develop her destructive influence by taking up the form of Christabel’s fiancé. Christabel is now coerced to step up to the altar, even though she feels an inexplicable repugnance towards “him.” At that moment, the real fiancé returns and presents a ring as a sign of recognition. Geraldine’s power dissolves immediately, and a happy ending is underway. (Spatz, pp. 113-114) Luckily, Coleridge might have realised that an undermining of morality is more powerful than morality itself.. Even so, Christabel has had a taste of awakening, at least for a moment, and has fomented an agency within herself. Even though devastated, she isn’t annihilated. On the contrary – her yearning protrudes from within romantic corpus, along with the mystery of Geraldine’s bosom.


Bibliography

Bataille, G. (1986). Erotism: Death and Sensuality. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books

Bloom, H. (Ed.). (2010) Samuel Taylor Coleridge – New Edition. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing

Palja, K. (2002). Seksualne persone: Umetnost i dekadencija od Nefertiti do Emili Dikinson. Beograd: Zepter Book World

Spatz, J. (1975). The Mystery of Eros: Sexual Initiation in Coleridge’s “Christabel”. PMLA, Vol. 90, No. 1, pp. 107-116. https://www.jstor.org/stable/461353

Stillinger, J. (1994). Coleridge and Textual Instability: The Multiple Versions of the Major Poems. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Taylor, A. (2005). Erotic Coleridge: Women, Love, and the Law Against Divorce. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan


Jelena Ćirić, Born in 1986 in Pirot. Graduated from the faculty of Philosophy in Niš, Bachelor of Arts in literature and Serbian language. Her specific fields of interest are: American poetry of the 20th century, opera, and feminism.

When free, she writes a blog https://operasighs.wordpress.com


Translated by authoress, translation edited by Aleksandra Stojković

This article was published in March of 2019, within the Awakening topic.

Read the other texts published in the Book Review section.

This article was originally published in Serbian and you can read it here. Translated into English by authoress.

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