Mariner: the repetition compulsion

The Mariner's lack of success in reaching a final formulation is shown by his fate. Even as he reaches the harbor he seems to carry the horror of death with him, to judge by the effect his mere appearance has on the Pilot and his boy: it is as if they sense the fiend that treads behind the Mariner. His request for shriving from the Hermit is not granted, but postponed as the Hermit requires him to say at once "What manner of man art thou?" (577) There is no reference to the shriving being performed; it would seem that the telling of the tale postpones it indefinitely, each telling postponing it yet again. For, in psychological terms, what the Mariner is now subject to is traumatic repetition of his experience.

As Lifton noted, the experience of the bomb was relived repeatedly in certain traumatic dreams of the survivors. Freud also noticed the compulsion to repeat on the part of the victim of a trauma, which showed up in his dreams or in other types of obsessive behavior. Freud explained trauma itself as being "caused by lack of any preparedness for anxiety, including lack of hypercathexis of the systems that would be the first to receive the stimulus." In the case of the repetitive dreams that ensue, the dreams represent an endeavor "to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis" (Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"; cf. Wheeler).

This, then, is the final condition of the Mariner: unshriven, and doomed to relive his horrifying experience repeatedly. Coleridge describes the traumatic compulsion graphically:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns. (582-5)

The compulsion to repeat seems to rewrite the original stasis in different terms. As Freud went on to say, its manifestations "exhibit to a high degree an instinctual character and, when they act in opposition to the pleasure principle, give the appearance of some 'daemonic' force at work." The Mariner certainly seems daemonic to the Pilot's boy -- and perhaps to the Wedding Guest too. Freud spoke of the instinct in question as "an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things" (Freud, "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"). Whether, as Freud would have us believe, the Mariner's final condition shows the workings of the death instinct is a question that must be left on one side for the moment.

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