I love articles that are challenging to fully comprehend, that stretch my intellect, and yet which are, at last, something I can comprehend, unlike many articles on physics, astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. I also enjoy articles which are written in such a fashion that the language of the article, apart from the substance, is nicely crafted. I also love articles whose subject matter is enjoyable expands my store of knowledge and understanding. For these reasons I found the following article by Eva Brann particularly satisfying. And, the subject, imagination, is one which I had never really considered very much — certainly not at the depth developed in this article by Ms. Brann. It appeared at: theimaginativeconservative.org as: On the Imagination. This essay was originally published in The St. John’s College Review (Volume 29, No. 4, 1978). I hope you will enjoy it. RMF
On the Imagination
by Eva Brann
The imagination invests the world with that richness and resonance which makes it an attractive dwelling for the intellect. But the imagination is indispensable to action as well. For the real world is worth our exertion only when the visionary imagination sets the scene for action…
Tonight I shall commit the deliberate indiscretion of trying to say what may be, all in all, unsayable. Let me, therefore, begin with a little disquisition on ineffability.
First, there often exists an insuperable inner resistance to speech. We may declare something to be unspeakably terrible, or unmentionably shameful, or, again, unutterably beautiful or inexpressibly deep. We do not mean that we have made a laborious effort to find the right words and have failed, but rather that we do not want to speak, that we do not want to rekindle or precipitate, tarnish or dissipate, amplify or diminish our inner experience by exposure. (Of course, there is also the trivial reluctance to find language, expressed in the routine adjectives “incredible” or “unbelievable” or “fantastic,” which stems from mere indolence.)
Second, and at the other extreme, it is conceivable that, as the very consequence of the most faithful and methodical pursuit of speech, it may come to its own end. For by speaking thoughtfully and searchingly it may be possible to talk oneself, as it were, to the very edge of the realm which speech intends, there to confront immediately that which speech is about—whereupon there would be only the silent passage into being.
Third, the outer world, in its multifariousness, may outstrip speech, which is, for all its copiousness, inadequate to the infinity of appearances. Speech not only expresses and searches, it also describes, weaving itself around things in their inexhaustible variety and detail and failing for lack of world enough and time. For we live, as one of Pascal’s Thoughts observes (I, 72), in a double infinity between the minute and the enormous, which makes our researches endless and our speech incomplete. I might add that the bulkiness of the most characteristic modern novels is the consequence of a strenuous effort to master the appearances in words.
Fourth, it is barely possible that there are experiences which are inherently private, ineradicably internal, ultimately unique, and hence incommunicable.
And fifth and finally, I come to the kind of ineffability with which my discourse tonight may be afflicted. There may be a realm which solicits speech but never yields to it, not by reason of being itself the object of speech or by being affected with infinity, but because it is the other of what is sayable, that which always absconds from speech. It is what Valery intends when he says:
The beautiful perhaps demands the servile imitation of that which is indefinable in things.
Only I shall not call it beauty but, more widely, appearance, or better, apparency, meaning precisely that in things which speech so often hopefully intends and always hopelessly misses; their extended, shapely, shining looks. I say “shining” not for effect, but to render the sense of our Greek word for the appearances, phenomena, that is to say, whatever comes to light, shines out. To put it briefly and simply: think of a picture and all that can be said about it. The words will be larger in scope than the image, but the image will not be contained in the words—that latter difference is appearance.
Now we have a special capacity for entertaining pure appearances, and it is that to which I want to devote the evening. Our ability for consciously taking in sensation, for bringing together our senses and our understanding, is technically called perception. We perceive “real” appearances, appearances in which some thing evidently appears, which have behind them some stuff that is there, externally at work. Attention to perception necessarily leads to its substrates, to things.
But we also have a curious capacity for mere or pure appearance. Here strictly no thing appears, no immediate other source, no sensory stuff, no supporting substrate. This capacity has two names, one Greek, one Latin, and unlike “perception” these are not philosopher’s terms. They are fantasy and imagination.
“Fantasy” is the noun from the Greek action verb phantάzo, which comes in turn from the verbal form of the same verb, phaino, to shine, whose passive yields the word phenόmenon. In sum, therefore, “phantasy” means “that which renders apparent,” a faculty for bringing to light. “Imagination” on the other hand, is related to the Latin verb imitari, to imitate. The imagination is therefore a faculty for images, for likenesses of things. Taking both aspects together, then, it is a capacity for appearances without “real” reference.
I should note here that although perception is more frequently and more technically discussed, the imagination, too, in its most sober as well as its most splendid functions, has had its share of treatment. But not so the peculiar and perhaps somewhat private aspect of which I want to speak tonight. In the many writings on the imagination covering its laws and its magic, its bodily basis and its transcendent source, there are few, and those not easily found, which deal with that.*
Now when engaged in the dubious and delicate business of expounding a recondite matter in public, the safe course is to delimit it as rigorously as possible. And so, I shall begin with a review of the ordinary, well recognized imagination. Not that there would be much profit in reciting to you the multitude of understandings that have been proposed: it has been regarded as a faculty, a function, a structure, a condition, an instrument, a mode, a power, a potency, a process, a treasury, a theatre, a place in the soul, an organ of the body. For these are, all of them, determined by the position which the imagination is assigned within the topology of the soul, and that is how I ought to begin.
In all major accounts the imagination is an intermediate power, positioned somewhere between the outermost reception performed by the senses and the inmost work done by thought. Furthermore, it is neither the lowest faculty (except for certain moralists for whom it is the source of evil imaginations) nor the highest (except for certain mystics for whom it is a theophantic power).
Let me convey to you the range of these positions by sketching out their outer and inner limits, as it were. You will recognize them as derived from Plato and Kant respectively, but the provenance is not the point—the scheme is. On the other hand, it is not entirely insignificant that these positions are philosophically formulated. For the imagination is not a distinguishable power until the world begins to appear. But in the ever present and ever recurrent condition not implausibly called “pre-philosophical”, the world does not, properly speaking, appear to us at all; rather it is at hand for our use and absorbs us as we absorb it, just as in a warm embrace the human appearance is eclipsed in closeness. For the world to become phenomenal, we must tear ourselves away from it, and look and reflect.
Therefore, I ought to begin where the philosophers have already been at work. First I must dispose of the slightly mad hyperbolic case proposed in all degrees of sophistication by people who place the imagination outside the soul altogether, in an effort to recapture the satisfying immediacy of pre-philosophical existence. For them appearance is simply the outer shape or envelope of solid stuff, and the imagination is a bodily organ on which material things leave a negative imprint or trace of themselves. They mean to save the world from any possible imputation of unreality by making appearances perfectly inseparable from matter. What is absurd is that they choose just such non-bodies as negatives or traces to testify to the handy, plump solidity of things.
The scheme itself lies all within the soul. It begins with the fact that when our senses are stopped the world disappears. We then conclude 1. that something comes to us, is conveyed into us; and 2. that it comes through receptors, ducts, as it were, such as Augustine calls the “cinqueport” or “five-gates” of our body. What comes, insofar as it comes by the senses, is called sensation. But even as it comes it is taken in and taken up, judged to be mountain, man, or mouse, as the case may be. Usually this judgment seems simultaneous with the reception of the sensation, not only when there is an instant recognition of something previously known, but when we know merely that a shaped “something” is present. (When I worked in the excavations in Athens, we had a catalogue classification called “little mysteries”, namely recognized “somethings” which it was, however, a scholarly triumph to “identify” specifically.) Sometimes, to be sure, ‘twixt sleep and wake, for instance, the judgment lags and we get an apprehension of mere sensation, a raw “manifold” as Kant would say. But usually we pronounce immediately, and such judged sensation, sensation met at the gates of the soul, is what Plato calls phantasia. For him phantasia is simply the noun for phainetai, “it appears”, namely the “mixture of sensation and judgment”, or “the contact of sensation and understanding”. (Sophist, 264; Theaetetus, 195.) Here imagination occurs at the interface of outside and inside, at the junction of soul and world.
I pass quickly over Aristotle’s most important intermediate placing of the imagination, now well within the soul but still facing out. He denies that it is the event of judged sensation and declares it a special potency for receiving and holding sense objects but without their matter. The resulting “phantasms” represent the accommodation of the world to the soul; without them there can be no thought about things. (On the Soul, 428, 432.)
So finally I come to that view of the imagination which places it at the other extreme, in the very center and depth of the soul. It is still a mediating faculty insofar as it is the hidden common ground of the outer and inner faculties. To explain its position it is necessary once again to treat of the phenomena, now in Kant’s way. Kant, as you will remember, claims to be effecting a second Copernican revolution. Copernicus, having failed to “save the phenomena” when making the stars turn about the observer, tried turning the observer himself. So Kant, unable to become perfect master of the appearances when they were allowed to move the soul, had the soul itself make the motion: the appearances do not come to us but arise within us in our faculty for representing appearances or sights to “look at”, our intuition. To be sure, some amorphous sensory stuff arrives from the outside, but it brings no informing news and is a mere occasion we provide the shapes and schemes in which sensation and understanding are synthesized to make what Kant calls “real appearances”, reality, the things as they represent themselves to us. (“Reality” is, after all, merely Latin for “thinghood”.) When I say “we” provide the schemata within which sensation is shaped and understood, I mean, or rather Kant says, that our faculty of imagination does this work. (Critique of Pure Reason B xvi, 180 ff.) And so the imagination is a faculty first for producing things and then for knowing them, a faculty for “real” recognition, the very world-making and world-knowing power.
But as we all know, in the ordinary understanding the imagination is assigned no such tremendous function. Often the fantasy or imagination is thought of merely as a capacity for inner pictures, “another craftsman in our souls”, or “a painter who….draws likenesses…in the soul”, as Plato says; it is for him the source of what he calls the “phantastic” art, the art of making deceitful semblances, or as we say, “works of art.” (Philebus 39, Sophist 235.) Kant, too, recognizes an imagination productive not in the sense of bringing together the faculties according to fixed “schemata” to form real appearances, but in sponsoring that free interplay between them which he regards as the source of art. Coleridge fixes this distinction when he writes:
The IMAGINATION, then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception….The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former….It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; …to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.
The passage hints at an interesting circumstance, namely that the value placed on the secondary, re-creative, imagination in fact varies directly with the centrality of the primary imagination. As it turns out, its potency varies inversely.
What I mean is that where the imagination is placed toward the outer regions of the soul, receiving appearances from the outside, the secondary or poetic imagination is represented as a mischief-making faculty of dissembling semblances, phantasms of a grade still lower than an at least scrupulous imitation of the inherently illusory appearances might produce. But who does not know the potency Plato accords the poetic imagination, particularly in using it to eclipse the enchantment of the world of appearance by means of myths of other worlds? Furthermore, the imagination, in painting the shapes of pleasures into the soul, engenders desire; accordingly in the Christian tradition the origin of “evil dispositions” is located there. Here the imagination is dangerous and potent.
On the other hand, where the primary imagination is itself the maker as well as the knower of the world, the poetic imagination is invariably highly, even anxiously, valued. For the first imagination makes a uniform, rule-governed, ordinary world, a mundane, not a cosmic order:
That inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
as a poet scornfully says. Therefore the power of a second, extraordinary creation, of introducing colorful singularities into a rule-ridden world is more than welcomed—it is nearly worshiped. But the more eagerly it is courted the less vigorous are its products and its effects. Let me propose a reason, which has to do with the distribution of this power among us.
The primary imagination (if it exists at all) is universal; all normal humans are capable of having real appearances. To be sure, its reflective cognitions, that is to say, the contents of the science of nature, do not come equally easily to all, though every responsible plan for universal education acknowledges that they are inaccessible to none. The secondary imagination—”genius” and “originality” are its Kantian names—is, on the other hand, very rare. Those who are gifted with the nimble play of the faculties needed to produce coherent appearances in the absence of sensation, and with the mental and physical talent needed to materialize them and set them back into the world as real appearances, form a small elite; that is a human fact, but evidently a fact next to unbearable in a mundane and egalitarian world. So whereas at first the “genius” is encouraged to value himself alone infinitely, soon a public conscious of its rights assumes for itself the same power: “creativity” is universalized. There follows a rage of making, a frantic constructiveness, sometimes aridly geometric and again wantonly amorphous, an obligatory originality which plays havoc with craft arid tradition. And sure enough, all manner of poetry declines in public power. I am treating you to this diatribe only because, we being to some degree in the condition described, I want to summon attention to yet a third, a “tertiary” imagination, which is neither so very ordinary as the cognitive nor so very special as the re-creative imagination.
I can do that best with reference to the two names, fantasy and imagination. As it happens, the former term, in its English form, the fancy, has in the tradition come to connote a lesser faculty, a faculty of pure unreality, of dreams and phantasms, of either inadvertent or arbitrary inner appearances. So Kant calls the imagination, insofar as it produces images involuntarily, “phantasy”, while Coleridge includes an element of willfulness. “The Fancy”, he says
is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE.
These two apparently opposed aspects of fancy are in fact complementary, as the day dream, that half willful, half passive exploitation of memory in the interests of desire, shows. Let me say right now that I would not deprecate day dreams, which are the lubricant of life and corrupting only if they are constructed out of indigent wantonness in such a way as to ask to be rebuffed by life. But as the open-eyed, imaginative inner shaping of our ardours they are the very emulsion from which our sober and sustained plans float up. I here uphold day dreams—much maligned by the maturity-mongers—as indeed a prime product of that tertiary imagination I want to defend tonight.
Why should I? It is because unlike the cognitive and poetic imaginations it is neither universally active nor rarely found. Instead it is, I believe, present in many people, hut often only potentially, for it can be starved and polluted and drowned out. It has always been beleaguered: by the exposed hardness of life or its debilitating comfort, by classical formalism or romantic exploitation. But in our day it is endangered from all sides at once: from expectations of doom and constructions of convenience, from the enormity of our universe and the tainting of our earth and even more by the over-stimulation of our senses and the overstraining of our expressive abilities—but most of all by the abuse of our intellect; for when the intellect is desiccated into mere rationality the imagination also withers. Later I would like to give some reasons why we should value this third imagination communally, and right now I can give some of the negative conditions for returning it to vigour—though many of you will probably find them off-putting and objectionable.
These rules for the recovery of the imagination would be: to desist deliberately from artless, therapeutic self-expression, to inhibit mightily all originality and “creativity”, to invent little, contrive little, construct little; either to recall to awareness or to turn off all stimulation—musical or visual—which is a circumambience rather than an object of pointed attention; and finally, to exercise the intellect strenuously and incessantly, especially in respect to our emotions and passions and feelings.
So finally I am ready to come directly to the description of this third imagination. It is first and last a capacity for momentary panoramas, for wide visions. A sight will rise up, fill the inner frame, fade. It is, next, a faculty at once passive and active; its works are affections and its affections works. It is involuntary insofar as its sights cannot, in their full enchantment, be summoned at will (though we can always provide ourselves with their pale replicas), It is voluntary insofar as we can make ourselves ready and receptive by seeking out certain sights and sounds and texts, and nurturing an aversion to others. I shall not now advertise its magic and its meaning, but read to you instead a descriptive sample. To be sure it is a musical rather than a visual example, but it will serve to exemplify the kind of incident this imagination gives rise to. It is taken from the novel of novels, War and Peace, The youngest Rostov, Petya, has run away to war and joined a guerilla band in their camp. It is the morning of his first battle—and his last. The auditory vision arises—as it is not untypical—on the border of dreaming.
Rain-drops dripped from the trees. There was a low hum of talk. The horses neighed and jostled one another. Someone snored.
Ozhik-zhik, ozhik-zhik…hissed the sabre on the whetstone. And all at once Petya heard a melodious orchestra playing some unknown, sweet, solemn hymn. Petya was as musical as Natasha, and more so than Nikolai, but he had never learnt music or thought about it and so the harmonies that suddenly filled his cars were to him absolutely new and intoxicating. The music swelled louder and louder. The air was developed and passed from one instrument to another. And what was played was a fugue—though Petya had not the slightest idea what a fugue was. Each instrument—now the violin, now the horn, but better and purer than violin and horn—played its own part, and before it had played to the end of the motif melted in with another, beginning almost the same air, and then with a third and a fourth; and then they all blended into one, and again became separate and again blended, now into solemn church music, now into some brilliant and triumphant song of victory.
‘Oh yes, of course, I must be dreaming,’ Petya said to himself as he lurched forward. ‘It’s only in my ears. Perhaps, though, it’s music of my own. Well, go on, my music! Now!…
He closed his eyes. And from different directions, as though from a distance, the notes fluttered, swelled into harmonies, parted, came together and again merged into the same sweet and solemn hymn. ‘Oh, this is lovely! As much as I like, and as I want it!’ said Petya to himself, He tried to conduct this tremendous orchestra.
‘Hush, now, softly die away!’ and the sounds obeyed him. ‘Now fuller, still livelier. More and more joyful now!’ And from unknown depths rose the swelling triumphal chords. ‘Now the voices!’ commanded Petya. And, at first from afar, he heard men’s voices, then women’s, steadily mounting in a slow crescendo. Awed and rejoicing, Petya drank in their wondrous beauty.
The singing fused into a march of victory, and the rain dripped, and ozhik-zhik, ozhik-zhik…hissed the sabre, and the horses jostled one another again, and neighed, not disturbing the chorus but forming part of it.
(Translation by Rosemary Edmonds, Penguin Books.)
It is not by chance that the incident occurs in a novel. It is in novels that such epiphanies are most at home. Novels, namely long works of fictional prose, are a very modern genre. They are essentially faked documentary reports, case histories of the ordinary world synthesized by the cognitive imagination. Their great bulk is a consequence of that attempt to master phenomenal infinity I spoke of before. It is within this prosaic world that the episodes of the imagination become acutely valuable, and they do indeed play a central role in many of the most massive novels. But they are the very crux of the longest of them, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, usually known by the English title taken from the Shakespeare sonnet:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past… (30.)
Proust proposes to himself one great problem: how to penetrate the mystery of what he calls the “privileged moments” of the imagination; in particular he is determined to find a solution in the last book, Time Regained, which contains the point of departure for the writing of the novel itself. He does not succeed, for a number of reasons some of which I shall mention in passing, though the chief one is in place right here; it is that he is more hell-bent on exploiting these moments to assuage his literary anxieties than on fathoming them. However, no more shall I succeed, and, except for an attempt to formulate the possibilities, my lecture will have to be aporetic.
The most immediate beginning of our inquiry into the imagination is given by its sensory triggers. For although imaginative appearances have no sense content (or perhaps precisely because they have none) they are often set off by an accidental sense impression; for example most people have had the experience of the sudden vivid resurrection of a scene by an odor. indeed, it is, oddly enough, the very senses which are most “sensual”, the senses activated by ingesting, inhaling, clasping, that is, taste, smell, touch, which most effectively set off the imagination. Petya hears the knife on the whetstone. In Proust’s novel the taste of a tea cake, the feel of a napkin, the touch of a pavement, play a great releasing role. They bring back in a magical mode scenic memories of Venice, of Balbec, of Combray which his “descriptive efforts and pretended snapshots of memory had failed to recall”. His explanation of the magic is, first, that since the recall is required to be inadvertent, ordinary, flattening, wilful intelligence plays no part in the recapture, and, second, that, since the sensory identity occasions a virtual resurrection of memory, the resulting visions are released from mundane, weary, enslaving temporality. But that does not explain why the imagination, a faculty of mere, or true, appearances, namely of asensual but vivid aspects presented for our attentive contemplation, should be so intimately related to the senses of repletion, the senses sometimes called “subjective” because they cause an effect in us while leaving the appearing object itself obscure. I can only speculate that it is because as a rule for us the way to delight is through desire: we must want before we truly see—hence the body makes the beginning, then the soul takes over.
Next I want to ask after the very imaging character itself, the imitative nature of the imagination. Aristotle makes a most undeniable statement when he begins his discussion of the imagination with the words: “Things are unclear concerning the imagination”. (On the Soul, 414.) For what could an appearing form without sensory freight be? What is a bare appearance, an imitation of reality? Jean Paul Sartre, who wrote much on the imagination, is preoccupied with it for just this reason—because it is the capacity for the non-present, the absent, the non-existent; it is a sterile and derivative mode—there is no world of the imagination. He echoes the classical, deprecating view of images: that they are not what they are, that they are a curious interweaving of being and non-being, and that phantasms are something less even than seeming, a pseudo-seeming. (Sophist 240.) Such views turn the imagination’s activity into a central metaphysical problem while depriving it of all lustre. Are they adequate?
Now it seems to me that there are three kinds of imaging: the world imitates itself, in shadows, reflections, mirrors, usually with the loss of a dimension but without any tampering intention, as it were. Next, human beings copy the world either faithfully according to ability, or mechanically by measure, or in a modulated version according to an inner appearance. These first two kinds of imagings result in a real image, that is to say, a material likeness. They are problem enough, but my interest is in the third imaging, which is entirely internal.
How does it differ from real or realized imaging? Here is the problem of appearance at its acutest. Inner sights are somehow according to the outer world, they echo or imitate it. On the other hand, they are without givenness: without thisness or hereness or nowness. They arise “out of nowhere”, out of all context: they endure indeterminately, unamenable to exact delineation or measurement, and their fading seems to be spurred by the very effort to hold them.
But for all that, they shine. The word “phantasy” says Aristotle, comes from phάos, light. And indeed, these imaginative images display a pregnant perspicuousness, a significant patency which I have called pure appearance because it is not the appearance given off by some thing. They have that unfolded extendedness, that spreading openness, (whose body is color), which is the chief mark of visual appearance. But what is it that appears, and what is it that is imitated?
In search of this answer let me insist once again that the imagination is primarily visual. To be sure, there are auditory imaginations, like Petya’s music; and Keats can claim that
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter….
But music is too essentially a temporal development to have a place in this faculty of singular moments; it is usually the occasion but not the content of images. It can make the clouds of heaven open to show riches even to a Caliban, whose isle
…is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Or it can be the accompaniment of a sudden vision, as in this account of a man surveying his ancestral estate:
Sebastian heard the music and saw the vision. It was a tapestry that he saw, and heard the strains of a wind orchestra, coming from some invisible players concealed behind the trees. His thoughts turned to the house itself, and there also found their satisfaction, for there also was activity; the pestle thumped in the kitchen; the duck turned sizzling on the spit; …(Sackville-West, The Edwardians.)
Tangibility, on the other hand, is entirely excluded. It is possible in the imagination to see oneself touching, say, a face, but is impossible to imagine touch—one can only feel it. Imaginations are intangible precisely because they are immaterial, unbodily, and for the same reason they are also un-dynamic— they lack all the characteristics of naturally moving bodies. They do not have a principle of motion within themselves. They may be transmuted but they cannot be transported. Nor can we move through them as we do through the natural world. Think, for instance, of making a landfall. A pale blue shield floats up on the pale blue water; in an hour it has turned into a grey and green-faceted range lapped by dark blue waves, and yet an hour later we are clambering about in the hot and fragrant ravines of an Aegean island. We cannot similarly close in to make contact in our imagination or, for that matter, engage in increasingly precise observation. We cannot turn on it the mental microscope or reversed telescope through which Gulliver sees the gross-textured Brobdingnagians and the insect-like Lilliputians. The inner world has no coordinates, no perspective and no scales—only shapes, places, and the absolute attributes of delicacy or grandeur. What appears internally is static because it appears in its one privileged aspect.
But precisely as they are intangible and unapproachable, so inner images form a world. For that is just what a world is: a January, 1978 “region of regions” as C, S. Lewis defines it, a setting, a scene, a theatre which forms our background, the containing environment for our more collected moments—for when it is necessary to come too urgently to grips with it, it disappears; at such a moment we lose the wood for the trees. What I mean by a world is perhaps best illustrated in those Renaissance paintings in which human beings carry on—pray, mourn, celebrate or just smile—against a lovingly rendered backdrop of a wide and vanishing, yet enclosing, landscape, full of city walls, steeples, hillocks, thickets and winding paths—their world. Again, think of fairy stories: how much of the tale, particularly of the English sort, is apt to consist of world-building, of the devising of a characteristic topography as a frame for wonders—its terrain is often laid out on the end papers. Or, on the other extreme, what is it that turns that tool of mere transience, the car, into a rushing cubicle of confessions and confidences for the American imagination, if not the exhilaratingly enfolding vistas of the passing continent? But, of course, I am thinking not only of landscapes but of cities and buildings, those more concentrated enclosures of human life.
Now insofar as these scenes are in us, we are not in them; indeed they are unpeopled. In this they differ from dreams. For often the very burden of a dream is a distillation of the peculiar pathos of a person, whose essence, however, appears not so much to us as through us; it is our feeling of them that we reveal to ourselves. And though the redolence of dreams is probably far more significant than their plot, still, unlike phantasms, they are compositional efforts—there is work in dreams, as Freud says, So also landscape paintings or architectural vedutas may contain people, albeit faceless. But the scenes of the fantasy have no figures, as is amply attested in written accounts: witness Proust’s visions of Combray, Martinville, Balbec, Venice, or Thomas de Quincey’s accounts of his opium dreams. De Quincey precipitated himself into the hells of opium eating partly to recapture and enhance the imaginations of his childhood, and he is a knowing, though tainted, connoisseur of the imagination. He speaks of his visions as follows (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater):
…the splendors of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds, From a great modern poet I cite the part of a passage which describes as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:
The appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty city—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendor—without end!
Fabric it seem’d of diamond, and of gold,
With alabaster domes and silver spires,
And blazing terrace upon terrace, high
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright,
In avenues disposed; there towers begirt
With battlements that on their restless fronts
Bore stars—illumination of all gems!
(Wordsworth, The Excursion, II)
Nonetheless, if we ourselves do not appear within the inner scenes, yet we are there. An anecdote is told—at least I recall it as being told—of a Chinese or Japanese landscape painter, who on having completed his masterpiece, picked up his ink and his brushes and disappeared off into it. In such a way we ourselves have been absorbed into our inner sights, and consequently as we scan them they look back at us familiarly:
Man wanders among symbols in those glades
Where all things watch him with familiar eyes.
Augustine gives a vivid account of such an inner circumainbulation:
And I come into these fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images of every kind of thing conveyed into it by the senses. . . And all this I do within, in the huge court of my memory. For there I have in readiness even the heavens and the earth and the sea. . . . There also I meet with myself. . . . (Confessions X.)
Since Augustine is speaking particularly of the memory rather than the imagination, the next thing is to investigate the close relation between them which is generally observed.
Is all memory imagination and all imagination memory? Are they convertible terms? All memory, it seems to me, is indeed imaginative in this sense, that whatever is remembered has the form of an appearance, and primarily (but not exclusively) a visual appearance. That is attested by the ancient and now forgotten art of “topical” or place memory, in which every item to be remembered was assigned a place in an imagined mansion, theatre, or cosmos, there to be located and recalled at will. (See Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, 1966.) So, also, if a poem is to be remembered, it is as if an inner prompter whispered it, so that we have an auditory appearance. In short, in the memory things re-appear—Kant calls it the “re-productive imagination,” a faculty for re-inscribing into the consciousness former appearances, voluntarily or involuntarily. (The peculiar reminiscence of invisible being called mythically “recollection” in the Platonic dialogues no reader of the Meno will confuse with ordinary appearance-memory.)
Conversely, all imagination is memory—though that is also, in a strange way I will attempt to articulate, not all it is. There is, however, general agreement that the imagination can only re-compose, re-arrange, re-form real remembered appearances, but it can bring forth no hitherto unseen shape. The unicorn is but a white horse with a horn on its forehead. (Indeed those extravagantly extended and strenuously contrived novelistic fantasies, like MacDonald’s Phantastes, most intrusively display the character of being mere mosaics of fanciful constructions and literary reminiscences.) But what is of more interest than the fact that the memory is the sole source of imaginary forms is that in being so it casts all imagination in the mode of pastness. A fairy tale properly begins with “Once upon a time”.
Hence the notion of the “lost paradise” figures large in theories of the imagination. Schopenhauer, for example, holds that “the sudden remembrance of scenes of past and distance flies by us as a lost paradise” because in them we have forgotten the “subjective” tortures of the will and its striving that all present reality brings with it, and recall only the pure “objective” appearance. (The World as Will and Representation, 38.) And in a general way, events are well known to undergo purification and enhancement in remembrance—past picnics are without mosquitos, and even the mundane sprawl of daily business can in retrospect be turned into a nostalgia-laden world:
Thus the telescope of fantasy draws a diffuse region of brightness about the blessed isles of the past…. (Jean Paul, “On the Natural Magic of the Imagination”.)
Through the past things grow perfect.
For Proust, above all, “the true paradises are always the paradises one has lost,”—but he has a different explanation, touched on before. It is not so much the perfective power of the past which makes imaginative reminiscence blissful, as the very fact—the mere fact—that the renewal of a memory betokens a liberation from the bondage of the inexorably continuous flow of time. To be precise: a “hard law of our nature” allows us to imagine only that which is really absent, which is without reality. In those privileged moments, however, a remote childhood scene is suddenly recalled in all the vividness of its perceived presence: it is at once devoid of weary reality and full of shining existence. The sensory trigger has therefore by a stratagem effected a contact between the dreams of the imagination and that of which they are habitually deprived, namely the idea of existence.
Mundanity has been transmuted into timelessness. The difficulty of this explanation, the fruit of twelve laborious volumes, is patent: The explanation is purely formal, for it attributes the enchantments of imaginative scenes not to something in them but solely to their relation to time, which is, after all, a mere form of appearance. But those childhood scenes whose resurrection is the source of such felicity, what was it in them which made them memorable?
Yet, however unsatisfactory Proust’s solution may be, it does bring to the fore the roots the imagination has in childhood. Its capability in adults is altogether dependent on the proper cultivation of that “dream-theatre” which, as de Quincey observes, is naturally rich in children. The malnutrition of the imagination in childhood, or its contamination by amorphousness and crudity is, I will argue, a recognizable public problem.
However, to return to the question of the association of the imagination with the past: I speculate that it is only a similitude. The archetypal impressions of childhood, arid indeed all deep impressions, already include even at their first occurrence the element of recognition, and hence the dimension of the past. Images are not memories because they come out the past but they seem to come out of the past because they are the cause of memorableness; they stand behind all memorable real appearances to give them their depth and significance, and their past mode is only a likeness for their priority.
Neither can the perfective power of the past be by itself responsible for the most remarked and remarkable aspect of the imagination, which is that is a faculty of fleeting but deep felicity. Proust reports:
…the intoxicating and elusive vision softly pervaded me as though it said: “Grasp me as I float by you, if you can, and try to solve the enigma of happiness I offer you.”
Whence the happiness? It is of a specific sort, not to be confused with the detached pleasures of pure sensation, such as the liquid silver of a single flute tone; nor the blissful absorption in an object of love, such as the facial topography of a human being, nor the engrossed perception of the formal perfection of beauty, such as a classical temple.
The beginning of the answer lies in the fact that images are affectively charged. Now there are various affective modes not characteristic of the imagination. For example, there is lively emotion tending toward expression—but the delights of inward imagining induce silence rather than eloquence. There is passionate desire which seeks possession—but the sights of the imaginative theatre are for contemplation rather than appropriation. Then there is rapt feeling, which suffuses the soul—and this is the mode of the imagination. Here a possible objection has to be disposed of. There is a romantic extravagance which Ruskin terms the “pathetic fallacy”. (Modern Painters, Ill, Pt. iv.). It is the willful fancy of endowing external nature with feelings and moods, especially of the morbid and maundering sort, like revery, brooding, nostalgia, all quite contrary to cool fact. But happily the inner landscape has no principle of motion within it and is neither nature nor a cool fact, so there can be no pathetic fallacy in regard to it. On the contrary, it is its very character to be invested with feeling, for it occupies the very locale of feeling, the soul. It is precisely by this affective investment that the imagination goes beyond the mere reproduction of previously perceived forms. It begins with a tuning of the soul, a musical mood or coloration—that is why music, though not often the content, is the surest occasion for fantasy, far more so than isolated sensations. This scenic eras, as one might call it, breeds and sustains the image, just as its failure lets it fade away into flatness. It would be false to say that the image “expresses” feeling; rather it contains it. That is the mode in which we are in our own visions—they are both the scat and the theatre of our feeling. Such feeling is, as I have noted, not a particular, nameable, passion or property—not pride or love, not elegance or magnificence—but that strong aura which gives the appearances meaning. So far the question “Whence the felicity?” seems to have this answer: it is the appearance in the images of the very feeling that conditions them.
But again the answer is insufficient. For it does not tell how imaginative sights contain the affections of the soul. What is it in these colored silhouettes that responds and corresponds to the summons of feeling? Here is the source of a whole class of curious, laborious, but irresistible musings, all of which are approaches to the prime question concerning imagination, namely “How can sights appear in the soul?” and its converse, “How can the soul be contained in sights?” Plato acknowledges these questions by presenting a mythical answer, as Plotinus admiringly points out (Problems of the Soul); in the Timaeus (36) the soul encompasses the world of appearances—the cosmos is in the soul, not the soul in the cosmos.
Hegel, on the other hand, presents a rigorously systematic answer. (Encyclopedia 452 ff.) It is given in terms of the self-development of spirit, at the stage in question called the intelligence. The intelligence is memory insofar as it internalizes (Hegel exploits the fact that a German word for memory is literally internalization, Erinnerung) those most immediate intuitions which come to it as mere feeling, turning them into inner pictures which are as yet isolated, out of context, indeterminate. The intelligence as active among these memories is called reproductive imagination; it is responsible for once again bringing Forth these pictures in the inner mode proper to the self. Its consummation is the fantasy, that stage of the intelligence which organizes the images and appropriates them into a connected self-intuition. This fantasy, an “inner workshop”, then gives coherent pictorial existence to the contents of the intelligence; it is everywhere recognized as the central agency in whose formation are unified the spirit’s own and inner possessions and its outer, adventitious, and intuitive acquisitions.
However, such answers are too grand to solve those more precise puzzles raised by immediate imaginative experiences. For example, how can a face, a figure, a scene, in their much constrained mobility, in their mere surface structure, evidence the motions and meanings of the soul? Why would it be futile (if it were possible) to take a magnifying glass to an imaginative appearance to learn more of it significance? Do we look into eyes and into panoramas, or do they look out at us? Is the infinite significance of any object of imaginative attention traceable, so that we can eventually answer the question:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
And why is double vision, the superposition of contrary visions, so poignant a part of the imaginative pathos? Take, for example, that most amazing of Homeric similes, used in behalf of an obscure warrior, a very casual casualty, who happens to come in the way of an arrow meant for Hector:
Like a poppy he dropped his head to one side, a poppy in a garden, weighted with fruit and spring moisture, so he bowed his head heavy with his helmet. (Iliad VIII, 306.)
But most enigmatic of all is the question: why we are continuously drawn to attribute meaning or reference to our imaginative visions, although strictly speaking only words can have meaning, (for they alone naturally intend thoughts or things), and only symbols can have reference (namely insofar as referents have been conventionally assigned to them)? Such are the questions, entrancing even to distraction, intriguing even to irritation, which are posed by the imagination. I do not mean to leave them totally unresolved. But before I make an attempt not so much to give answers as to articulate possible solutions, let me go to a more tractable task.
For I want to conclude with a grand defense and apology in behalf of this tertiary, this entirely internal, quiescent, faculty of phenomenal contemplation. Shelley makes such a defense of poetry, “the expression of the imagination”, calling poets “the founders of civil society” and poetry “the great instrument of moral good.” I want to praise the private poet, the painter within, as indispensable for both theory and practice.
First, the imagination is the great helper of the intellect and not only, because, as Aristotle observes, there is no thinking without images. (On the Soul 432.) Rather, precisely by reason of being not one wit irrational—and yet certainly a-rational—it is designed to be the support and complement of thought, the refuge and renewal of the inquiring intellect, which leans into it, much as a child leans against a parent while gazing into the world, in secure curiosity. The imagination invests the world with that richness and resonance which makes it an attractive dwelling for the intellect. Again, the imagination is the complement of thought because it holds its matter in the mode of a unique totality, while the intellect works toward comprehensive wholeness; the former contains worlds of the most arresting particularity, the latter tries to reach the realm of universality. The best exemplification of the complementing of intellect by imagination is to be found in those panoramic philosophical myths each of which imagines a brilliantly particular cosmos designed as a visible consummation of the intellectual endeavor to encompass the whole.
But the imagination is indispensable to action as well. For the real world is worth our exertion only insofar as an inner scene is projected on it, or rather behind it—only when the visionary imagination sets the scene for action. No community can be an incitement to intense effort until it is resonant with reminiscences and until it is situated not only on the grid of the earth but also in a place of the soul. Of course, as I have shown, this place is often reached through the past, which also lies “behind” communities. (I think that the much disparaged liking for architectural reminiscences, like fake half-timbering, for instance, is an expression of the wish to give depth to the habitat by adding that temporal dimension.)
Such are what might be called the utopian, public functions of the imagination. And as it calls forth action in communities, so it stands behind action in individuals. Thomas Mann, who was particularly charmed by this discovery, finds what I am talking about to be a typical antique mode:
The antique consciousness stood, as it were, open toward the back, and absorbed much of what is past, in order to repeat it in the present…Ortega y Gasset expresses it in this war that antique man…seeks an exemplar in the past, into which he slips as into a diver’s helmet, in order thus…to precipitate himself into the present problem at once protected and disfigured….But this living as a re-living, a re-vivification, is living in myth.
These enabling myths are the works of the scene-setting imagination; I do not see why they should be the preserve of antiquity.
And finally, even—or especially—in ordinary private existence, the imagination serves to make life livable. For it occasionally breaks out into that sober daily routine which is our predominant mode to unveil the golden fond of life. Such occasions are the inner counterparts of public celebrations, only without calendar. The imagination is the impresario of these private festivities as the city is of public festivals; both serve the same purpose: the illumination of daily life.
I have described and defended this appearance-producing, world-making, meaning-laden capacity of ours. But what in the world, or out of it, does it betoken? As I warned in the beginning, I do not know, but I do have a roster of possibilities. Here it is:
First, it is conceivable that such imaging is merely a kind of open-eyed hallucinating. If Hume and other dissipators of the human mysteries were right, and if the imagination really, as he says, “amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials offered us by the senses and experience” that would indeed be the case. (Enquiry II.)
Second, and at the other extreme, imaginations may be virtual recollections, or even current influxes, the remembered or present intimations of a world beyond, of an actual “lost paradise,” where “paradise” means another world, a world of self-sufficient ultimate appearances. Whether there is such a paradise, and whether the embodied soul has access to it by being, as it were, open and receptive not only in front toward the “real” world, but in back, inwardly, toward that final realm—those are serious theological questions, But certain it is that the recurrent written accounts of such revelations usually refer to cities, replicas of the “holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:2), though bearing different names; for example:
Then, between sleeping and waking, there rose before me a vision of Trebizond: not Trebizond as I had seen it, but the Trebizond of the world’s dreams, of my own dreams, shining towers and domes shimmering on a far horizon, yet close at hand, luminously enspelled in the most fantastic unreality, yet the only reality, a walled and gated city, magic and mystical, standing beyond my reach yet I had to be inside, an alien wanderer yet at home, held in the magical enchantment; and at its heart, at the secret heart of the city and the legend and the glory in which I was caught and held, there was some pattern that I could not unravel, some hard core that I could not make my own, and, seeing the pattern and the hard core enshrined within the walls, I turned back from the city and stood outside it, expelled in mortal grief. (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond.)
There is a secular pendant to this understanding, proposed by Jung, namely that each separate human soul has access to a supra-individual soul from whose archetypes it derives its images. I cannot bring myself to consider it seriously.)
Third, there is the possibility, first set out by Plato in the Phaedrus (250), and strongly fixed in the tradition, that beauty, “the most shiningly apparent and loveliest” of the ideas, is precisely the very shining out of being in appearance, while being itself is only mythically a realm of “whole and simple and calm and happy phantasms” which were once beheld by every human soul. That is to say, all appearances that have any radiance at all, and so certainly imaginative appearances, are an expression, an externalizing, an epiphany, an incarnation, of the sightless intellectual world; everything truly visible signifies a thing of thought, essentially invisible.
Fourth and finally, the imagination may be in its very while a faculty of infinite reference, the striving of the soul in its sensing body to make appearance itself significant. What I want to convey is difficult (but not impossible) to express. I mean that the soul endows its own appearances with essentially incomplete references which keep us continually casting about for a meaning, so that we turn first to temporal prototypes, that is, memories, and eventually hypostatize even prior experiences, out of time. But in vain, since in the very search we remain enmeshed in appearances, and it is in them that the enigma is seated. For, on the one hand it is of the very essence of appearances—if they can be said to have an essence—that they should have transparency and let a background shine through. Yet, on the other, these inner images are fairly saturated with the inimitable fragrance of their self-sufficient singularity. To say it once again: When the attempt is made to catch particular appearances in a verbal net, that aspect which eludes any articulation—that is the locus of the mystery. As Thomas Mann, ever laborious in the service of verbal sufficiency, confesses:
How many literati before me have moaned over the unfitness of language for achieving visibility, for bringing forth a truly exact picture of anything individual! The word was made for laud and praise. To it has been given the power to admire and bless and characterize appearance through the feeling that it arouses, but not to invoke or reproduce it. (Doctor Faustus, Ch. XLIV.)
This plaint is doubly and triply applicable to the inner appearances. One might conclude that the imagination is engaged in its own, peculiarly competent version of the old project of “saving the phenomena,” not, as thought does, by making them rational but by making them inexpressibly enchanting.
I can think of these four possible answers to the problem of the fantasy, but I cannot fix on one of them and be finished with the inquiry. I see that it must be a permanent pursuit, that all answers are premature and only preparatory approaches are possible. Indeed, no preoccupation can bring closer to home Socrates’ saying that philosophy is a preparation for dying and being dead. (Phaedo 64.) For then it will most certainly have to appear whether the whole mystery is to be dissolved in the blankness of oblivion: or whether luminously invisible intellectual sources will blot out the shadowy phenomenal shapes; or whether another world of substantial ultimate appearances—above or below, as our case may be—is to receive us; or whether the enigma of sights has still another, as yet unimagined, solution. And so a certain consolation for the ending of our life is as much the gift of that most wonderful power of the soul about which I have tried to speak tonight, as is the illumination of our daily existence.
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This essay was originally published here in June 2013, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. This essay was originally published in The St. John’s College Review (Volume 29, No. 4, 1978) and is republished here with gracious permission.
Aristotle, On the Soul, Bk. III, 427 ff., on phantasia.
Augustine, Confessions, Bk. X, on memory.
Pico della Mirandola. On the Imagination.
Jean Paul Richter, The Life of Quintus Fixlein, Ch. 1, “On the Natural Magic of the Imagination”.
Hegel, Encyclopaedia, Philosophy of Spirit, 455 ff., “The Imagination”.
Coleridge, Biographica Literaria, Ch. XIII, ‘On the imagination. or esemplastic power”.
Ruskin, Modern Painters, Pt. III, Sc. II, Chs. II-IV, “Of Imagination: Associative, Penetrative, Contemplative”.
Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Time Regained, Ch. III.
Sartre, The Psychology of the Imagination.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Figures in a Hudson River Landscape” by Albert Bierstadt.
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Published: Nov 12, 2018
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Eva Brann is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative, a distinguished and long-serving tutor at St. John’s College, and the 2005 National Humanities Medal recipient. Dr. Brann’s works include: Paradoxes of Education in a Republic, The Past-Present: Selected Writings of Eva Brann, What, Then, Is Time?, The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance, Homeric Moments, Feeling Our Feelings, The Logos of Heraclitus, Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo It, The Music of the Republic: Essays on Socrates’ Conversations and Plato’s Writings, and Then & Now: The World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne. Dr. Brann has also published translations of Plato’s Statesman, Sophist, Symposium or Drinking Party, and Phaedo.