Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A revolution in the meaning of 'imagination': Johnson & Coleridge

We take it for granted that imagination is a good thing; it is not a compliment to say that someone has no imagination. This has not always been the case; when Coleridge lamented the loss of "the shaping power of imagination" in his great poem of 1802, Dejection: An Ode, he was giving a new meaning to the word.  Were you to consult Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of The English Language (1755), you would not find the word 'imagination' associated in any way with the creative energies of the mind in the arts or sciences. For Johnson the word meant either 'fancy': "the power of having ideal pictures, or the power of representing things absent to oneself or others," adding that "Imagination is of three kinds: joined with the belief of that which is to come; joined with the memory of that which is past, or as if they were present: "for I comprehend [and here he is quoting Bacon] in this imagination feigned and at pleasure as if one would imagine such a man to be in the vestments of a Pope, or to have wings"; or, 'conception': the power of having an image or idea in the mind.

[And here I must add a sort of foot-note: for William Blake, Coleridge's "shaping power of imagination" would have been nothing new, but Blake comes from an intellectual and religious tradition that poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley—and of course, Byron—knew nothing about; as a tradesman, moreover, and a man who worked with his hands as an engraver, none of the romantic poets would have been likely to have met or even heard of him in 1802.]

Johnson himself distrusted the imagination. And here I should like to refer you to Johnson's Rasselas (1759), which is by the way one of the greatest books about the search for happiness ever written.

Rasselas is an Abyssinian prince who has escaped from the boredom of the artificial paradise—"The Happy Valley"— in which all the royal princesses and princelings are kept safely ignorant of life in the real world. He and his sister (and servants) escape with the help of one of their tutors, a scholar and man of the world named Imlac, who becomes their guide and teacher in the ways of the world and especially the possibilities it offers in the way of happiness. (It will not surprise you to learn that Rasselas never finds an answer to his question about the way of life most likely to lead to happiness.)

At one point, Imlac tells his little group of tourists that a visit to the great pyramid might be instructive
and this visit is duly made. Imlac has a purpose in making this visit: it gives him an opportunity to warn his royal students about the way the "hunger of the imagination" can distort one's life by creating desires for things one does not really need. Indeed, Rasselas can be thought of as a book about the various disorders to which the imagination is prone. (Johnson thought and said repeatedly, that people need to reminded rather than informed.) So here is Imlac's lecture on the "hunger of the imagination that feeds on life":

"Having  passed through the galleries, surveyed the vaults of marble, and examined the chest in which the body of the founder is supposed to have been reposited. They then sat down in one of the most spacious chambers to rest a while before they attempted to return. “We have now, said Imlac, gratified our minds with an exact view of the greatest work of man, except the wall of China.

“Of the wall it is very easy to assign the motives. It secured a wealthy and timorous nation from the incursions of Barbarians, whose unskilfulness in arts made it easier for them to supply their wants by rapine than by industry, and who from time to time poured in upon the habitations of peaceful commerce, as vultures descend upon domestick fowl. Their celerity and fierceness made the wall necessary, and their ignorance made it efficacious.

“But for the pyramids no reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expence with equal security. It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use, till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish.

“I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited, and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace, by the erection of a pyramid, the satiety of dominion and tastelesness of pleasures, and to amuse the tediousness of declining life, by seeing thousands labouring without end, and one stone, for no purpose, laid upon another. Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!”

There you have it: for Johnson there was nothing creative or even good about the imagination—or the hunger for novelty that it feeds. "I consider this mighty structure," says Imlac, "as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments"—and, he might have added, the endlessness of human desires, which is a Hobbesian thought. Johnson would not have wanted to be connected with Hobbes in this or any other way, but if human desires are endless so too is the struggle for power—for without power our hunger for novelty must go largely unsatisfied.

Bear with me as I digress, briefly, on that 'Hobbesian thought', which is relevant not only to the quest for happiness in Rasselas, but also to be the central idea of Coleridge's poem. The following lines, are taken from Hobbes' Leviathan (1651):

By 'manners' I mean here . . . those qualities of mankind that concern their ability to live together in peace and unity. To which end we are to consider, that the felicity of  this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such "Finis Ultimus", (utmost aim),  nor "Summum Bonum" (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former being but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, that the object of man's desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure forever, the way of his future desire. And therefore all the voluntary actions, and inclinations of all men, tend, not only to the procuring, but also the assuring of a contented life; and differ only in the way which ariseth partly from the diversity of passions, in divers men; and partly from the difference of knowledge, or opinion each one has of the causes, which produce the effects desired.

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.

Turn now to the following lines from Coleridge's "Dejection" Ode:

 My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavor,
Though I should gaze forever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And what we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the earth—
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth
Of all sweet sounds the life and element. . . .

We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colors a suffusion of that light.

There was a time, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth;
My shaping spirit of Imagination.

For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man—
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul. . . .

"O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live . . ."

For Coleridge, the shaping (or, as we would say, creative) spirit of imagination is what makes poetry and art possible and life worth living, and I don't suppose Blake or Wordsworth or Keats, or Shelley or, any other artist would have disagreed. But Blake, at least, would not have agreed about much else, since he regarded Nature as Satanic—which is not the same thing as saying that Nature is Darwinian, though to us at least it comes close. Yet we, who know very well that Nature is Darwinian are likely to find these lines false as well as beautiful: Nature doesn't need us at all, and will manage finally to get rid of us. (But that is the rational mind talking; when I turn it off, it is the beauty and moral truth of these lines that I'm mainly conscious of. Though I am not a Christian I remember Jesus's parables and sayings, and especially what he had to say about the Kingdom of Heaven being within.)

Wallace Stevens said that a world without imagination had itself to be imagined, and that's what Coleridge is doing in the lines that follow those I have just quoted:

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And what we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd . . .

To conclude this shapeless mess, I should like to comment on what to Coleridge as well as Blake is the real enemy of the imagination. Coleridge blames his loss of the shaping power of imagination on his philosophical inquiries, and Blake would have agreed for it was he who first declared war on reason, philosophy or the analytical proclivities of the meddling intellect as the enemies of imagination in poetry and art—a disjunction or antipathy that seems now to be a permanent feature of the modern cultural landscape. Critics do not often write good poetry but some famous poets have been famous critics; I doubt that the same is true in the other arts—art critics and historians are not usually, or even ever, significant artists; and I know of no great artist or musician who ever bothered to write criticism.


Friday, November 4, 2011

The Arts and The Sciences: Two Cultures

We put the arts and sciences at the center of a liberal arts educational curriculum, in the U.S. at least, and sometimes something comes of that juxtaposition: a few students learn that the arts and sciences are so radically different in their methods and assumptions, in the questions they ask and in the criteria they use in judging a piece of work; that no amount of learning in the arts is of any use in the sciences and vice-versa. That's worth knowing; it tells one something about the structure of the world we live in and try, as best we can, to understand; it tells one that modern science (including the language of science, mathematics) has nothing in common with modern (or modernist) art; and vice-versa. 
So one can be the world's  foremost authority, on, say the art of Picasso and know nothing about relativity, or quantum mechanics, or the mathematics of symmetry; what one cannot be ignorant of as an authority on the art of Picasso is art-history. The sciences are different: one can be a great physicist and mathematician without knowing much about the history of physics and mathematics; a physicist today does not need to know very much about Aristotle or Galileo or Newton; or Gauss or Euler.

These two cultures (art and science) as C. P. Snow once labelled them, have not always been as isolated from each other as they are now: science, engineering and the arts were once, during the Renaissance, in Rome and Florence, part of single discipline which I suppose we might call architecture. Leonardo de Vinci, possessed the sort of “unified sensibility” (the phrase seems to have been invented by T. S. Eliot), that felt equally at home in the arts and sciences.

For a long time, no one seems to have thought of art and science as antagonistic ways of understanding the world—that one had to choose: you could be a scientist or an artist but not both.
As late as 1800, Wordsworth was confident that the poet and the scientist  were basically singing the same song. Here is what he had to say in his ‘Preface’ to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which without any other discipline than that of our daily life we are fitted to take  delight, the Poet principally directs his attention. He considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the  fairest and most interesting qualities of nature. And thus the Poet, prompted by this feeling of pleasure which accompanies him through the whole course of his  studies, converses with general nature with affections akin to those, which, through labour and length of time, the Man of Science has raised up in himself, by  conversing with those particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies. The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of Science is pleasure; but the  knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance; the other is a personal and individual acquisition,  slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow- beings. The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown  benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.  Emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare hath said of man, "that he looks before and after." He is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder  and preserver, carrying every where with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite  of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread  over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet's thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet  he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the  heart of man. If the labours of men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we  habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science, not only in those general indirect  effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or  Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us,  and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective Sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and  suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and  blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.   

It was not to be—for all sorts of reasons, chiefly the fact that by 1800, the sciences had already progressed to such a point that the only way to understand them was to unlearn all the literary or philosophical wisdom you had painfully acquired and learn a new language and new discipline. Nothing you thought you knew would be of any use in, say, Michael Faraday's laboratory. That was something that a man like Goethe, for example, who had been born in 1749, could never have done. The wisest man in Europe, according to Santayana, he refused to accept Newton’s theory that all the colors are combined in white light; what is more he wouldn’t even consider the evidence that supported Newton’s work; nor, did he ever change his mind. He had his own more ‘organic’ theory, which he developed in a book which eventually ran to more than a thousand pages when it was published in 1810. It was a book that he was inordinately proud of; he really seems to have thought that his optical studies rather than his literary works constituted his most lasting achievement. 
Here is what one of his biographers, Peter Boerner (Goethe: London, 2005) has to say: “Typical for Goethe’s approach is a passage in the didactic section of the Theory of Colours: The eye owes its existence to light. From neutral animal auxiliary organs, light calls forth an organ similar to itself; and thus the eye is created by light for light, so that the inner light nears the outer. We recall in this connection the old Ionic school of thought, which emphasized that only like can recognize thought; and also the ancient mystic’s words, which can be expressed thus:

Were the eye not like the sun,
How could we behold the light?
If no godly power lived in us,
How could we find in God delight?

"No one will deny the direct relationship between light and eye, but imagining  the two to be one and the same is more difficult. It may be easier to grasp if one asserts that the eye has within it a still light that is aroused at the slightest internal or external prompting. In the dark we can call up the brightest images using our power of imagination. In dreams, objects appear to us as if in clear daylight. When awake we notice the slightest beam of external light; indeed when the eye is struck by accident, light and colors emanate from it." (p.80-82)

It is painful to hear such obscurantism coming from such a man. But Goethe was a man from another age, saturated in the literary and philosophical traditions that had defined Western culture for more than 2000 years. Though he greatly admired Spinoza, and Spinoza's Ethics, he could not accept the   mechanistic Nature that is so central to Spinoza's philosophy.