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.


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