Post-Traumatic Parataxis and the Search for a “Survivor by Proxy” in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

by Fred Ribkoff , Karen Inglis

January 21, 2011


In light of works by Primo Levi, trauma theory (Herman),

psychoanalytic criticism (Hartman, White), and criticism

concerned with the poem’s dialogism (Macovski, Wheeler), this

article reads Coleridge’s “Rime” as a post-traumatic, paratactic

narrative mirroring the guilt- and shame-ridden experiences of

trauma survivors.  The Mariner is compelled to repeat his story

of trauma because he lacks an “authentic listener” (Laub)

or “survivor by proxy” (Lifton) capable of internalizing and

reflecting his pain and dislocation so as to integrate it into a

new conception of humanity.  The Mariner’s “crisis of

witnessing” (Felman, Laub) is characterized by dissociation

evident in emotionally charged paratactic gaps and the responses

to them by “false witnesses” (Lifton), including the Wedding-

Guest and the Mariner himself, who judge the Mariner based on

inadequate frames of reference.  The authentic reader—engaged

with the paratactic structure of the poem—does, however,

recognize the Mariner’s post-traumatic humanity and is,

therefore, further humanized.


The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me; I felt closer to the dead than the living, and felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had gulped down millions of human beings, and many of my friends, and a woman who was dear to my heart.  It seemed to me that I would be purified if I told its story, and I felt like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who waylays on the street the wedding guests going to the feast, inflicting on them the story of his misfortune. (Levi, Periodic 151)

These words are from Primo Levi’s Periodic Table.  Levi’s identification with Coleridge’s Mariner is not incidental.  In fact, he has articulated this identification in several of his writings as critics such as Geoffrey Hartman, Sara Guyer, and Judith Woolf have recognized. Levi, one of the most prolific and well known of Auschwitz survivors, clearly identifies with the Mariner’s compulsion to tell his tale and be “purified” or, in the words of Coleridge’s Mariner, to be “shriven.”  The attempt to be purified or shriven, as both Levi and the Mariner find out, fails, and it fails because in order to integrate traumatic experience, another process is necessary: testimony and integration, not confession and absolution. Our use of the concept of “integration” originates from trauma theory. As Judith Herman states in her formative study of trauma and recovery, the “survivor seeks not absolution [from others], but fairness, compassion, and the willingness to share the guilty knowledge of what happens to people in extremity” (69).  In other words, “The goal of recounting the trauma story is integration, not exorcism” (181).

It seems that by the time Levi completes The Periodic Table (1975) and certainly by the time he completes his final book, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), “possibly his most striking, profound and also darkest book” (Gordon XV), Levi has no illusions of “purification.”  And yet he continues to tell the tale of his experiences inside and outside Auschwitz and is plagued and driven by traumatic memory to communicate the incommunicable.  “Once again it must be observed, mournfully,” Levi states in Chapter I of The Drowned and the Saved, “The Memory of the Offense,” “that the injury cannot be healed: it extends through time, and the Furies, in whose existence we are forced to believe, not only rack the tormentor (if they do rack him, assisted or not by human punishment), but perpetuate the tormentor’s work by denying peace to the tormented” (25). “The injury cannot be healed,” but the post-traumatic pathology of compulsively repeating the story of trauma can be eliminated within a specific psychotherapeutic situation, suggests Coleridge’s “Rime.”

At the outset of The Drowned and the Saved, establishing a literary ground for the disturbing current of thought to follow, Levi aligns his own torment--and all he has learned from it--with that of Coleridge’s Mariner in the following epigraph:

                        Since then, at an uncertain hour,

                        That agony returns,

                        And till my ghastly tale is told

                        This heart within me burns. (582-5)

Why is Coleridge’s Mariner (and by extension, Primo Levi) compelled to tell the tale that he tells in the form that he tells it and why involuntarily at that “uncertain hour”?  Where does the Mariner’s (or, for that matter, Levi’s) “strange power of speech” come from?  How is it that the Mariner can “know the man that must hear” his tale and what it is that his tale “teach[es]” (22)?  Does the Mariner really “know” why a particular man must be taught and is he teaching what he thinks he is teaching?  Of course, the possible answers to such questions are numerous, as the critical world demonstrates.  In fact, Francis Ferguson suggests that such questions are often pointless and arbitrary “in a poem filled with arbitrary events” (66).  Nonetheless, in the light of Levi’s thoughts in The Drowned and the Saved and trauma theory it is possible to extend the possibilities and learn more about why and how Coleridge’s unique narrative of trauma is so compelling and relevant for Levi and  all of us situated within post-traumatic cultures in which the news of atrocities of unimaginable and surreal proportion rarely provokes thought or action sufficient or effective or affective enough to turn back the tide of bloodshed at home or abroad.[i] Primo Levi looks to Coleridge’s “Rime” to make sense of the human condition in traumatic times, and so too must we.

 Levi’s identification with the Mariner underlines the degree to which “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a trauma narrative, specifically a post-traumatic narrative.  Coleridge’s Mariner exhibits textbook post-traumatic stress disorder. “Unlike commonplace misfortunes, traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death.  They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe.  According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation’” (Herman 33).  Such feelings lead to the formation of traumatic memory: “in contrast to narrative memory, which is a social act, traumatic memory is inflexible and invariable. .  . .[T]raumatic memory is evoked under particular conditions.  It occurs automatically in situations which are reminiscent of the original traumatic situation.  These circumstances trigger the traumatic memory” (Van der Kolk 163) or “the re-experiencing of the traumatic event” (DSM IV 463).

Coleridge’s Mariner does not escape his feelings associated with trauma, except temporarily after telling his tale: “at an uncertain hour, / That agony returns: / And till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me burns” (583-585). Trauma theory documents that the only means to long-lasting relief from trauma is to engage in a dialogic process of witnessing with an “authentic listener” (Laub 73)  or a “survivor by proxy,” a term introduced by Robert J. Lifton, a psychoanalyst who has treated survivors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, among other traumatic experiences.  In an interview with Cathy Caruth, Lifton, speaking about the psychotherapeutic experience from the point of view of an analyst, says,

that you must in some significant psychological way experience what they [survivors] experience .  You can never do that quite.  But it’s being a survivor by proxy, and the proxy’s important.  You’re not doing what they did, you’re not exposed to what they were exposed to, but you must take your mind through, take your feelings through what they went through, and allow that in.  It’s hard, it’s painful, and yet you know you must do it as you come into contact with it, and the people who have done the best therapy with survivors and who have written the most importantly and movingly about survivors have had to do that. (145)

An examination of Coleridge’s “Rime” from the point of view of trauma theory not only reveals the nature of the incomprehensible or the process of grasping at the incomprehensible that is central to trauma, but a fictional tale that mirrors and informs the process of testifying to traumatic experience.  More specifically, it testifies to the experience of acting as witness to trauma for an audience either unwilling or incapable of listening, and limited by its own paradigms of thought. In other words, an inauthentic, conceptually limited, and resistant audience.

But the Mariner’s “crisis of witnessing” (Felman and Laub, xvii) is compounded by the fact that not only are his listeners limited, but he suffers the same conceptual limits--specifically, he suffers from the Christian paradigm of crime, guilt, confession, penance, purification, redemption--in his attempts to frame his traumatic experience.  On the other hand, in telling his tale the Mariner is up against what all severely traumatized people are, the “insufficiency of any known system of explanation” (Herman 178).  And on top of the limits manifest within the tale, readers are subject to their own conceptual limits.  As Frances Ferguson says, “It seems that a reader can only read the texts that say what he already knows” (72).  For example, from a contemporary post-holocaust point of view, the Mariner is both perpetrator and victim, but such conceptual terms are inadequate and misleading.  He feels guilty for his “crime,” but is it a crime?   Coleridge’s Mariner exists in some kind of Levian “gray zone,” “poorly defined, where the two camps of masters and servants both diverge and converge,” challenging “our need to judge” (Levi, Drowned 42), a challenging that is typical of the post-traumatic condition.  "In coming to terms with issues of guilt, the survivor needs the help of others who are willing to recognize that a traumatic event has occurred, to suspend their preconceived judgments, and simply to bear witness to her tale" (Herman 68).

In the second chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, entitled “The Gray Zone,” Levi suggests that to the new prisoner of Auschwitz, “The world into which one was precipitated was terrible, yes, but also indecipherable: it did not conform to any model” (38).  The Mariner, like Levi, like many trauma survivors, is compelled to tell his story because it remains “indecipherable,” unintegrated, and incomprehensible, like an anomaly demanding a new or alternate paradigm of thought.  In Chapter I of The Drowned and the Saved, Levi states that “the memory of a trauma suffered or inflicted is itself traumatic because recalling it is painful or at least disturbing” (24).  And yet Levi, unlike the Mariner, is acutely aware of his and the world’s limits when it comes to imagining or re-imagining the extent and implications of “the offense.”  Indeed, Levi sees himself as an anomaly and, ultimately, an inadequate witness.  “I must repeat,” he says in Chapter III of The Drowned and the Saved, “Shame,” “we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. . . .  We survivors are not only exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom” (83).  As early as his first book, Survival in Auschwitz (first published in 1958 and originally titled If This Is a Man), Levi suspected that the stories of suffering in the Holocaust constituted, at least potentially, “stories of a new Bible” (66); that is, stories upon which to build a new paradigm of thought capable of integrating and accounting for the “indecipherable.”  The guilt and shame associated with survival is compounded by the fact that he is “not [one of] the true witnesses.”  Nonetheless, Levi sees himself, as he states in The Drowned and the Saved, as a witness “by proxy” (84) articulating his “discover[y of] the ways in which understanding breaks down” (Caruth, “Recapturing” 155) and speaking for those who cannot speak about that which cannot be spoken about.  Levi is a self-reflexive, self-conscious witness to the inadequacy of his own witnessing, whereas Coleridge’s Mariner lacks the capacity to transcend his own paradigmatic limits.   The Mariner judges himself, as do his fellow crew members, by altogether inappropriate terms, something the reader becomes aware of as he or she witnesses him or herself becoming a “survivor by proxy.”

 In Survival in Auschwitz’s “The Canto of Ulysses,” Levi tells of translating lines from Dante’s Inferno for a fellow prisoner, Jean. Commenting on this experience in The Drowned and the Saved, Levi recalls that this mutually empathic and reviving discussion enabled him to “re-establish a link with the past, saving it from oblivion and reinforcing [his] identity” (139).  While in “hell,” Auschwitz, re-membering and voicing partially remembered lines from Dante’s hell, Levi integrates and lives the pre-traumatic and traumatic selves in the company of Jean, a survivor by proximity, if you will.  At the end of his dialogic exchange with Jean, Levi speaks of a “flash of intuition” that unearths “something gigantic . . . perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today . . .” (115), the final ellipsis signifying the meaning that eludes Levi after he leaves Auschwitz and finds  himself in the company of those who were not there and could not or would not act as a “survivor by proxy.”   Coleridge’s Mariner never himself encounters a survivor by proximity or “by proxy” and is destined to repeat his surreal tale of horror and death to individuals unwilling and incapable of really listening.

For the willing reader, unlike the unwilling Hermit and Wedding-Guest, “Rime” enacts a dialogic process, but a dialogic process other than the one Michael Macovski outlines in his chapter on “Rime” in Dialogue and Literature.  Macovski suggests that “The auditor contained within the poem . . . becomes a synecdoche for rhetorical resistance, for poetic agonism.  It is this resistance on the part of an incorporated auditor that ensures that the poetic speaker will continue to respond, endeavouring to answer an interlocutor’s protests and queries.  In this sense, agonism serves to perpetuate dialogue”(97).  Indeed, this agonistic relationship does perpetuate a pathological retelling of the tale of trauma.  However, it does not provide a relationship necessary for the victim of trauma, in this case, the Mariner, to integrate the pre-and post-traumatic selves.  The Mariner must therefore go on reliving, at uncertain times, and in largely dissociated terms, his tale of woe.  As Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart state, “Lack of proper integration of intensely emotionally arousing experiences into the memory system results in dissociation and the formation of traumatic memories” (163).  The only way, trauma theory suggests, for the victim of trauma to integrate the pre-and post-traumatic selves, if it happens at all, is for there to be a fully affective dialogic act of witnessing between the teller of the tale and an “authentic listener” (Laub 73), not an agonistic one.  The trust in this dialogic, “authentic” relationship enables the survivor to reconnect with the previously dissociated emotional content of the trauma and thus reconnect the “shattered” (Herman 61) self (Krystal 87-8).  “As trauma theorist Bessel van der Kolk notes, ‘there is absolutely no controversy about the significance of constructing a trauma, and telling it to an empathic other, in recovering from trauma’” (qtd. in O’Loughlin 203).  This is essentially a communal mourning process (Krystal 87) that can lead to “the holy grail of an integrated personality” (O’Loughlin 202).  In “constructing a trauma” in this manner, the survivor and “survivor by proxy” create and sustain, however temporarily, an alternate paradigm or conceptual and ethical space through which to frame and decipher the “indecipherable.”

Unknowingly, the Mariner, while seeking to be shriven, is searching for “an integrated personality”; unfortunately, he needs to do so in a different conceptual and ethical dialogic space that does not resist or attempt to expiate extreme feelings of shame and guilt but, rather, seeks to get at their source. To be sure, as many critics suggest, he is seeking to alleviate or absolve himself of the guilt of shooting the Albatross, but there is more to his irresolvable predicament: shame.  He needs to feel human and whole again.  To reconstruct his personality, and escape the feeling of being, as Levi states in The Periodic Table, “closer to the dead than the living” (151) or, in the Mariner’s words, a “curse in a dead man’s eye” (260), he requires a “survivor by proxy,” someone capable of recognizing his post-traumatic humanity and humanizing his shame.

“Shame,” says Helen Merrell Lynd in On Shame and the Search for Identity, “interrupts any unquestioning, unaware sense of oneself.  But it is possible that experiences of shame if confronted full in the face may throw an unexpected light on who one is and point the way toward who one may become” (20).  Guilt, on the other hand, is different: “Guilt is centrally a transgression, a crime, the violation of a specific taboo, boundary, or legal code by a definite voluntary act.  Through the various shadings of meaning there is the sense of the committing of a specific offense, the state of being justifiably liable to penalty.  In the usual definitions there is no self-reference as there is in shame” (Lynd 23).  With shame, “[t]he exposure may be to others but, whether others are or are not involved, it is always . . . exposure to one’s own eyes” (Lynd 28), and in “Rime,” eyes, the eyes of the Mariner’s dead crew members in the mind’s eye of memory, are always upon him: “The look with which they looked on me / Had never passed away” (255-6). “Shame,” Judith Herman says, “is a response to helplessness, the violation of bodily integrity, and the indignity suffered in the eyes of another person” (53).  And in “Shame,” the third chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, Levi speaks of an “exposed nerve,” and the feeling that he “might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another” (82). Later, he states: “I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others” (82). The Mariner’s “curse,” like Levi’s curse, is the curse of shame, “the curse in a dead man’s eye,” the shame stemming from the inability to prevent the deaths of others or to bring upon his own. The curse is not, as most critics suggest, simply a matter of guilt or of survivor’s guilt (White 823), and Coleridge himself knew this, at least about himself.  In his Notebooks, he speaks of an “inexplicable feeling of causeless shame & sense of a sort of guilt” (qtd. in Macovski 84).  Indeed, Michael Macovski goes further than any other critic in exposing the degree to which Coleridge needed to expose shameful parts of himself in his writings:  “Coleridge’s approach to this imminent ‘Evil’ [‘causeless shame’ or ‘secret lodger’] is . . .to expose it.  To expose it, one must have ‘sufficient strength of character’” (qtd. in Macovski 85).  Moreover, as Harry White notes, “Coleridge believed men could be held morally accountable for their derangement because he thought the greater part of such misery still lay within the power of their conscious control” (815).  White quotes Coleridge:  “’there is a feverish distemperature of Brain, during which some horrible phantom threatens our Eyes in every corner, until emboldened by Terror we rush on it—and then—why then we return, the Heart indignant at its own palpitation!  Even so will the greater part of our mental Miseries vanish before an Effort’”(815).  However, the eyes of the “phantoms” that threaten us cannot be vanquished and they will not vanish unless they are integrated into a post-traumatic conception of self.  It is not just enough to engage in a dialogic process with oneself. What is needed, says Lifton, is the dialogical exchange with another person willing to  “take [one’s] mind through, take [one’s] feelings through what they [the victims of trauma] went through and allow that in” (Caruth, “Interview” 145). This kind of willingness is missing in the Mariner’s interlocutors, but it is something Coleridge’s readers may discover in the act of reading, and if they do, they are survivors by proxy.  They are not just “sadder and wiser.”  They have willingly engaged in an ethical and transformative process capable of being translated into human interaction.

The Mariner needs a “survivor by proxy,” but such a “survivor” is very hard to come by, even within the psychotherapeutic situation.  In his interview with Caruth, Lifton characterizes the “therapist’s false witness to the survivor’s trauma” (143) as an act of “taking the survivor on a false path” (143) based on the therapist’s need “to deny death” (143).  Caruth makes sense of this “false witness” in a way that characterizes those Coleridgean fictional post-traumatic witnesses, namely the Hermit, the Wedding-Guest, and the Gloss-Writer, who are compelled to listen to the Mariner’s story.  Paraphrasing Lifton, Caruth states, “So in a way what you’re saying is that the ideological moment is when the therapist draws on this paradigm . . . the moment at which the trauma gets assimilated into that narrative of ‘you must have had a stress in your childhood’” (142).  “The most common constrictive responses [by therapists] are doubting or denial of the patient’s reality, dissociation or numbing, minimization or avoidance of the traumatic material, professional distancing, or frank abandonment of the patient” (Herman 151). In other words, finding an empathic witness is very difficult; even professionally trained psychotherapists act as “false witnesses. Coleridge’s “Rime” is full of ideologically driven “false witnesses.”

In short, only by witnessing the limits of the poem’s “false witnesses” to trauma in “Rime” can an authentic reader or “survivor by proxy” emerge.   For those of us exposed and receptive to the polyphonic truth of trauma, to death and vulnerability, suspended among the voices of the tale, “[t]he effect of immersion in such testimony . . . is to humanize us deeply,” as Michael O’Loughlin states about the effects of studying “survivor narratives” (205).  While reading “Rime,” engaged in the poetics of post-traumatic suspension and poised on the dialogic threshold of death, the reader is, if you will, more fully alive and human.  This form of poetic negotiation is an act of Conscience for Coleridge, an act defined by Coleridge as “affections and duties toward others” (qtd. in Macovski 75) or, in Macovski’s terms, “a desire for affective sympathy” (75).  However, it is not simply an act of empathy.  In his discussion of “Rime” in “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies,” Geoffrey Hartman claims that “the post-traumatic story often needs a ‘suspension of disbelief.’”  “Rime,” he says, “requires just that kind of empathy” or “suspension of disbelief” (“Traumatic” sec. 4).  In fact, “Rime” requires an authentic witness suspended by the limits of belief in an otherwise inaccessible realm of knowledge.  To become such a witness, one has to read the characters’ conceptual limits that frame a gap, or that which is missing and beyond belief:  hence the supernatural nature of the poem and uncanny knowledge outside the realm of belief but inside human experience, accessed through the traumatic, narrative gaps.

The most glaring gap in Coleridge’s poem is, of course, evoked in the Mariner’s recitation of the killing of the Albatross.   Before saying, “with my cross-bow/ I shot the ALBATROSS” (80-2), the Mariner gives us a detailed, seemingly objective and unemotional or dissociated description of a night scene aboard the ship.  There is mist, cloud, fog, the white-glimmer of the moon and the bird perched atop “mast or shroud” (75).  And then of course there is the interjection by the Wedding-Guest: “’God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!-- / Why look’st thou so?’” (78- 80).  And next, a pause, a dash, a gap, and we get the famous line, “With my cross-bow / I shot the ALBATROSS”(81-2).  The “crime” is apparently motiveless, causeless (Ferguson) but suspended in a kind of amoral existential space beyond empirical and psychological understanding.  Indeed, to suggest that the shooting of the Albatross is a crime, is a crime.  As Ferguson notes, “The criticism of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ reflects a craving for causes” (248), a craving that can never be satisfied, and as such a crime against the paratactic integrity and post-traumatic reality of the poem.  Quite simply, the act of shooting the Albatross exceeds explanation and, for it to be understood, it must be read in a very particular way.

If one is reading the poem paratactically, one does not read individual episodes and events syntactically.  One does not read them chronologically or anylogically; one reads them in the realm of resonance; they read mnemonically, like a dream, like a myth.  The tale is in the telling and the dissonant staging of it in the mind.  “Like the Bible, the Iliad, and all great imaginative works possessed and transmitted by different cultures,” says Jerome McGann, the “’Rime’ is Coleridge’s imitation of a culturally redacted literary work” (51).  And inherent to the “redacted literary work” is the paratactic. 

When it comes to the shooting of the Albatross, the paratactic gap in narrative framing is induced by unintegrated, incomprehensible, overwhelming trauma.  This gap, negotiated every time the Mariner articulates his tale, is the direct result of dissociation. In her Afterword to Trauma and Recovery, Herman points to “the century-old insight that traumatized people relive in their bodies the moments of terror that they can not describe in words.  Dissociation appears to be the mechanism by which intense sensory and emotional experiences are disconnected from the social domain of language and memory, the internal mechanism by which terrorized people are silenced”(239). The dissociated way in which the shooting of the Albatross is articulated suggests a missing syntactical, causal link:  the word “because.”  The Mariner appears to be saying, “I look like this because . . . I shot the ALBATROSS.“  Nonetheless, although the causal link may be implied, it reveals nothing and everything except the enigma of the act, its sense-less-ness, its traumatic effect.  Indeed, as Hartman suggests, “psychology as the seat of motivations is elided” (“Traumatic” sec. 4), but as we suggest, it is, at the same time, evoked, for this effect, in the form of affect, is what the Mariner needs to communicate if he is ever going to emerge from a pathological post-traumatic state.  His affectless words, “I shot the ALBATROSS,” are incongruous with and point to the overwhelmingly charged sub-textual affect of the line. In other words, the nexus of feelings native to the traumatic event stops at the margins of the mind and body and can’t be incorporated into language until humanized by another. If the reader is there, fully engaged in the moment of the telling and witness to the Mariner’s stricken face, that which prompts the Wedding-Guest to state, “’God save thee ancient Mariner. . . Why look’st thou so?’” the reader recognizes the shooting as beyond meaning (in any conventional sense), beyond belief, and unbearable.  The reader re-members the Mariner’s horrific experience as the Mariner re-enacts it in his mind and body and outside speech.  Here, at the moment of incongruity and palpable silence, the reader acts as a vehicle of integration or reintegration.

It reminds one of the a/effect of listening to and watching video testimony of survivors of genocide who either cannot find words to articulate traumatic experience or find words that fail them, but not necessarily us, at least not altogether.  For viewers, the jarring juxtaposition of the linguistic, syntactical failure and the embodied, voiced memory allows “knowledge” to surface.  Speaking about “Tele-suffering and Testimony,” Geoffrey Hartman describes an “aesthetic education” based on  “a structural moment of indeterminacy that escapes the brain’s binary or digital wiring . . . [wherein] unframed perception becomes possible, a disorientation that is not to be confused with skepticism or nihilism” (Reader 444).   Quoting Maurice Blanchot, Hartman describes the “’[d]anger that the disaster take on meaning rather than body’” (Reader 444).  The Mariner’s sub-textual affect, embodied in his facial expression and the Wedding-Guest’s mystified response to it, situates the reader on the threshold of the “indecipherable.” The Mariner’s act of shooting the Albatross is; it just is.  It is an acknowledgment of the Mariner’s essential existence, its “essential fragility” (Levi, Drowned 69), and an act that defines him and us.  The Mariner is the embodiment of post-traumatic humanity riddled with unassimilated feeling of guilt and shame in search of a judgment with no sufficient grounds for judgment.

Appropriately, Part 1 of the poem ends with the words, “I shot the Albatross,” without judgment or any moral reactions to the Mariner’s shooting. Readers have a chance to judge or not for themselves before they hear any judgments. Indeed, the limits and dangers of both belief and judgment are at issue in this strange poem.  Speaking of the prisoner-survivor’s irrational but persistent feelings of shame associated with that which was beyond their control, Levi points to the “judgment that the survivor believes he sees in the eyes of those . . . who listen to his stories and judge with facile hindsight. . . .  Consciously or not, he [the survivor] feels accused and judged, compelled to justify and defend himself” (Drowned 78).  It appears that this compulsion underlies Levi’s identification with Coleridge’s Mariner in the face of witnesses such as the Wedding-Guest.  The poem allows us to experience the dynamics of witnessing and enables the authentic reader to rise above (in more senses than one suspects) the compulsions and observations of the “false witnesses” of the poem, including the Mariner himself.[iii] The reader’s critical capacity to assess and judge is simultaneously engaged and disengaged.

The first judgmental voices we hear in response to the Mariner’s action are those of the crew. On a primary level, there is a glaring gap between the crew’s explanation that attributes the changes in environmental conditions to the death of the bird and the lack of information upon which to base any empirical claims about the reason for the change in weather. The superstitious crew will grab at any explanation for the inexplicable.  They are caught in the world of Coleridgean Understanding, a “discursive” and “generalizing” faculty that, as Coleridge says, “depends on the senses for the materials on which it is exercised”  (Aids 234) and which “concerns itself exclusively with the quantities, qualities, and relations of particulars in time and space” (Statesman’s 60). The crew members’ certain, but self-serving and hypocritical responses to the shooting of the albatross, are absurd to the “authentic reader,” but appear to be taken seriously by the Mariner.  But why?  On one level, he operates under the same paradigms of thought and is as desperate as they are to make sense of his experience. But on another level, the Mariner appears to recognize the inadequacy of the crew members’ explanation.  He says, “For all averred, I had killed the bird” (93); “Ah wretch! said they” [emphasis added] (95); “Then all averred, I had killed the bird” (99); “’Twas right, said they [emphasis added] (101). In these words, the Mariner speaks of what they said, but not necessarily what he believes or feels.  The Mariner is clearly estranged from the claims of responsibility and guilt made by the crew, and perhaps he has intuited the gap between the reality and the accusations of the crew. But despite this intuition, he feels responsible, but not necessarily for the reasons suggested by the crew. His guilt allows him a measure of control. Judith Herman explains that “Guilt may be understood as an attempt to draw some useful lesson from disaster and to regain some sense of power and control.  To imagine that one could have done better may be more tolerable than to face the reality of utter helplessness” (53-4). In shooting the bird, the Mariner has initiated a traumatic rupture in his conception of the self and the world. He is, as the Wedding-Guest sees, plagued by this irreconcilable act and moment. Indeed, he cannot grasp, thus we cannot grasp why he did it or how he did it. But the why or how is beside the point: “the identity they [survivors of trauma] have formed prior to the trauma is irrevocably destroyed” (Herman 56).  Significantly, “Rime” marks the Mariner’s conception of the traumatized self as the “I” enters the poem for the first time.  The Mariner’s opting for guilt rather than “utter helplessness” and inexplicability embodies a "crisis of witnessing" (Felman and Laub).  He can only say what he did, but he cannot make sense of it nor integrate it into his sense of himself or the world.  That integration can only come through a dialogic exchange with a “survivor by proxy.”

“In the aftermath of traumatic life events,” Herman states, “survivors are highly vulnerable.  Their sense of self has been shattered.  That sense can be rebuilt, only as it was built initially, in connection with others” (61).  What the Mariner needs is a confirmation and recognition of his own humanity.  As Dori Laub, in the context of his discussion of the testimony of Holocaust survivors, says, “it is this very commitment to truth, in a dialogic context . . . with an authentic listener which allows for a reconciliation . . . which makes the resumption of life . . . at all possible” (73).  “It is,” Laub contends, a “dialogic process of exploration and reconciliation of two worlds—the one that was brutally destroyed and the one that is” (74).  When the Mariner stops the Wedding-Guest, it is to initiate dialogue and, unknowingly, to access the truth of himself, a truth that can only be known paratactically within the gaps.  It is not accessible through fear-driven questions that are inherently denials of the Mariner’s post-traumatic normalcy.  Tragically, the Mariner never comes across the necessary authentic listener.  He always comes up against “agonistic witnesses” (Macovski) who may leave “sadder and wiser,” but they are anything but empathic.

While it is true that the Wedding-Guest acknowledges the Mariner’s tortured state in the question, “Why look’st thou so?” (80) which might make one think that the Wedding-Guest is acting as a “survivor by proxy,” from this point on, the Wedding-Guest is either silent or in fear of the guilt- and shame-ridden Mariner and wants nothing more than to escape.  At the end of Part 3, for example, the Mariner relates the death of “Four times fifty living men” (216) and the departure of their souls, which he says, “passed me by, / like the whizz of my cross-bow!” (222-3) giving concrete form to his guilt and responsibility.  This triggers the Wedding- Guest’s self-centered interjection:  “’I fear thee, ancient Mariner! / I fear thy skinny hand! / And thou art long, and lank, and brown, / As is the ribbed sea-sand’” (224-7).  He fears the Mariner is one of the walking dead, hence the Mariner’s reassuring response:  “Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest! / This body dropt not down’” (230-1).  As Ward Pafford notes, “The point of the reassurance is, of course, that the Mariner is a fellow human” (623).  The Wedding-Guest is a “false witness,” resistant to the tale of death.  The Mariner, however, insists upon his own humanity.  He was and is alive, but, as he says to the Wedding-Guest, “Alone, alone, all, all alone / Alone on a wide wide sea!” (232-3).  Or as Judith Herman has learned from survivors recovering from traumatic experience, “the traumatic syndromes are normal human responses to extreme circumstances” (158).

Another scene of “false witness” occurs when the Mariner mentions the body of his “brother’s son” (341) who “said nought” (344) to him. The Mariner here, in dissociated terms, acknowledges his responsibility for his brother’s son’s death, and this affectless verbal admission of guilt triggers the Wedding-Guest’s fear once again. And once again, the Mariner attempts to reassure the Wedding-Guest.  The reinvigorated corpses on the ship are not animated by souls of the dead but by “spirits blest”(348).  Seeing the Mariner as part of the world of the dead rather than of the world of the living, the Wedding-Guest fails as a witness.  The Mariner, and trauma survivors in general, need to know that what they have experienced, who they are, and what they feel after that experience is altogether human.  And the only way the Mariner can know this and move beyond a compulsive retelling of his tale of trauma is if he knows he is heard by an authentic witness. The Mariner does not get this from the Wedding- Guest who leaves “A sadder and a wiser man” (624), but in silence.

In fact, he doesn’t get this authenticity from anybody.  Those who save him from the sinking ship, for example, the Hermit, the Pilot, and the Pilot’s Boy, are horrified by him and see him as a crazy man. Indeed, the Hermit asks, “’what manner of man art thou?’” (576).  In other words, are you Human; are you alive?  This questioning of the Mariner’s humanity, in essence of the reality of his trauma and all the guilt and shame that goes with it, prompts the tale:

                        Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched

                        With a woful agony,

                        Which forced me to begin my tale;

                        And then it left me free.

                        Since then, at an uncertain hour,

                        That agony returns (578-83)

At “uncertain” times, when another human being is “uncertain” of the Mariner’s humanity, he  is “forced” to tell his tale (583).  What distinguishes these “uncertain times” is that he is faced with a person who does not recognize his humanity.  The Mariner says, “I know the man that must hear me” and this man is one who questions the “manner” of his humanity.  The Mariner is human, even more human because of his traumatic experience and confrontation with the incomprehensible.  The chosen witnesses, the Wedding-Guest, the Hermit, must come to recognize themselves in him.   He lacks a “survivor by proxy,” the vehicle for the integration of the fragmented self.  But the reader, the “authentic listener,” comes to recognize the Mariner’s  humanity in his limits, the limits of the crew members, and of course, those of the scientifically inclined Gloss Writer, whose explanations distort the actual tale in all kinds of curious ways.

The Gloss Writer is just one of the many voices in the poem that has an inauthentic response to the Mariner’s story.  Indeed, this limited perspective on the events of the poem is underscored by the concept and use of a “gloss,” or that which glosses over meaning, drawing attention to the gap between the words of the gloss writer and the action and meaning of the poem.  There is little doubt that this “witness” to the story fails to hear the Mariner.  Some of the most obvious examples of the Gloss Writer’s interpretive stance include his claim that the Mariner “killeth the pious bird of good omen” when there is absolutely no proof that the bird is pious or an omen of any sort.  The Gloss Writer’s scientific cast of mind, marked by the word “proveth” and later on by his claims to know of the polar spirits through the works of various learned scholars,[iv] reveals him to be trapped in the realm of Understanding, a faculty that depends upon generalization, that compares “one object with another” (Aids 24).  As K. M. Wheeler notes, “The two most characteristic elements of the gloss, setting it apart from the verse, are its geographical specifications and its technique of streamlining the narrative so that the sequence of events and their causal connections are made more clear” (52). The Gloss Writer misses the paratactic.  Indeed, he fills in the gaps, interrupts the meaningful interruption, destroying the oral, paratactic indeterminate qualities of the tale. Wheeler rightly sees the gloss as ironic: Unless one sees the gloss within an ironic context of a caricatured reductionist, and moralizing reader, it is difficult to understand why it [the gloss] would have been included in the poem at all” (60). In the case of this poem, irony frames paratactic gaps or gaffs and insists upon a dialogic and polyphonic reading.

These false witnesses are Coleridge’s way of underscoring, even mocking, inadequate frames of reference when it comes to the most meaningful, seemingly incomprehensible, spiritual parts of existence. For example, the dialogue, which is more like two monologues, that ends part 5 of “Rime” and begins part 6 verges on the farcical, but effectively crystallizes one of the central concerns of the poem.  The first voice asks, “’But why drives on that ship so fast / Without or wave or wind?’” and the second voice says, “’The air is cut away before, / And closes from behind’” (424-5), which simply describes what is happening, the boat is moving through space, but does not respond to the desire for an explanation for cause or motivation. That is, the second voice’s paratactic “explanation” is perhaps the most pointed and true one.  At least it does not insist on asserting a materialist or religious logic to the mystery. The second voice exists in the present, describing the action paratactically as it materializes, whereas the first voice exists in a cause and effect paradigm.

If, as we claim, the Mariner enacts a post-traumatic symptomology, having never integrated his traumatic experience because of the inadequacy of those to whom he tells his tale, then how is it, one might ask, that he is transformed in his second perceptual encounter with the water snakes.  The reader witnesses this anomalous point of insight embodied in the Mariner’s blessing of the water-snakes “unaware.”  The Mariner says, “The self-same moment I could pray; / And from my neck so free / The Albatross fell off, and sank / Like lead into the sea” (288-91).  That “self-same moment” is a moment, and only a moment, of self-integration and not a point of purification or redemption.  The albatross falls off his neck, but he is not free; he is yet to fully integrate his story of trauma, the mystery of the shooting of the albatross and all that follows, into his sense of self and the world.

Despite this moment of oneness and integration, the fact that the Mariner is involuntarily compelled to tell his tale over and over again, and the fact that he ascribes a trite moral meaning to his tale,

                        He prayeth well, who loveth well

                        Both man and bird and beast.

                        He prayeth best, who loveth best

                        All things great and small;

                        For the dear God who loveth us,

                        He made and loveth all (612-17)

suggests that he has not integrated his story of trauma into his story of self.  Indeed, his use of language that mirrors that of the Gloss Writer, “made and loveth,” confirms that he is compelled to package his experience in language that can’t contain it.[v]  And thus he misses the opportunity to witness his own post-traumatic humanity.  While the Mariner is engrossed in the telling of the tale of trauma, that is, operating within traumatic memory, there is no place for what Cathy Caruth calls, “the platitudes of knowledge” (“Recapturing” 155) or narrative memory.  There is an integrity or authenticity or truth to the Mariner’s post-traumatic tale and the humanity that it embodies that the Mariner himself cannot grasp and which is violated in his final remarks.  And at some level he knows it, at least his embodied memory knows it as it keeps on reasserting itself, in search of a dialogic exchange with a survivor by proxy.

The “survivor by proxy,” the authentic reader, however, by virtue of having experienced all the voices, and all the mistaken interpretations, does see, does listen, does hear.  If nothing else, what the “authentic reader” sees, or rather, experiences is that which the characters of the poem miss:  the paratactic wisdom of the poem. As Caruth notes, “The impossibility of a comprehensible story, .  . . does not necessarily mean the denial of a transmissible truth” (“Recapturing” 154). Writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Primo Levi, witnesses to trauma, who speak through literature, speak the “unspeakable” and make it accessible in the act of reading. 

[i] Levi suggests that his narratives of his own trauma are relevant to present and future atrocities against humanity: “Besides, up to the moment of this writing,” states Levi in the Preface to The Drowned and the Saved, “and notwithstanding the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the shame of the Gulags, the useless and bloody Vietnam War, the Cambodian self-genocide, the desaparecidos of Argentina, and the many atrocious and stupid wars we have seen since, the Nazi concentration camp system still remains a unicum, both in its extent and its quality” (21).

[ii] For a discussion of parataxis in the Iliad, see Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato.

[iii] Jerome McGann, in his essay “The Meaning of the Ancient Mariner,” explores the various interpretive levels of the poem as examples of Coleridge’s “religious theory of interpretation”(50) and of historically grounded interpretation in general.  Whereas McGann sees these “symbolically grounded interpretations” as “acts of witness . . . which dramatically testify to the desire to know and continuously create the truth that has always set one free”(52), we see these “acts of witness,” especially those of the crew, the Gloss Writer, and the Wedding-Guest as false.  The authentic reader is meant to see the limits of the various interpretations and read the gaps created by them. For a discussion of the irony created by the limits of the voices in the poem, in particular, the gloss writer, see K.M. Wheeler “The Gloss to ‘The Ancient Mariner’: An Ironic Commentary” in The Creative Mind in Coleridge’s Poetry. London: Heineman, 1981. 43-64.

[iv] For a discussion of the character of the Gloss Writer, see Huntington Brown’s essay “The Gloss to The Rime of the Ancient MarinerModern Language Quarterly  6(3) (2008): 319-324.

[v] Lawrence Lipking, in his essay “The Marginal Gloss,” notes the identical statements, but suggests that the coincidence between the gloss and the ballad marks, rather than a collapse into cliché terminology, a moment of healing: “As a divided consciousness might be healed by a moment of prayer, so a divided text is healed by a moral intelligible to the wise and simple heart alike” (82).

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Fred Ribkoff and Karen Inglis "Post-Traumatic Parataxis and the Search for a “Survivor by Proxy” in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 21, 2011, Published: January 21, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Fred Ribkoff and Karen Inglis