Aug 31 2022

Toward an Unbound Civic Imagination

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

So, first I said I thought Americans need to think about imagination more, and think about it seriously, as a tool (but certainly not the tool) for addressing the most pressing problems in contemporary society: traffic congestion, housing shortages, healthcare costs, and mass-shootings––perhaps even the malaise of a lot of contemporary American (particularly Texan) art and literature.

Then I said maybe citizens should be careful, because imagination has its costs, and some of those costs Americans may not want to pay for. In other words, “imagination won’t save us; but don’t then let it slay us.”

Still, it feels wrong to remain inert. My mind remains restless, as if I’ve woken up gasping not for air but for fresher thoughts.


So I continue my studies of imagination, and there I find that poet-polemicist-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) more than once referred to the imagination as a “restless faculty” of the mind, endowed by “Nature,” and made for “noble” ends (or goals).

Let therefore my “lofty ambition,” my “high hopes” be thus: that we may learn to cultivate (bildung) an “enthusiastic imagination,” one “vivid” and containing civic “reveries” not without spiritual “passion.” Though in this advocacy, I feel as if I’m Dr. Frankenstein wanting to create a new and improved civic American (or Texan):

Clerval! Beloved friend! Even now it delights me to record your words and to dwell on the praise of which you are so eminently deserving. He was a being formed in the “very poetry of nature.” His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the world-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination.

(Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), “Ch. XVIII.”)

The doctor further confesses:

My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man. Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. (“Ch. XXIV”)


Twenty-nine years after Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), in her novel Jayne Eyre (1847) mentions “the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of imagination,” (Ch. XXI).

Seventy-seven years after Eyre––but very early in the text of the Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (1924)––André Breton (1896–1966) describes “this imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility.”

Breton’s elder, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), later observed in his essay “A Secret Vice” how:

Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind?

After Tolkien, in one his early studies called The Death of Tragedy (1963), Franco-American critic George Steiner (1929–2020) noted of the English poet Robert Graves (1895–1985):“Graves says, the imagination has extra-territorial rights, and these are guarded by poetry.”

Even so, poetry is not policy.


As Owen Barfield (1898–1997) once put it, “if law is the point where life and logic meet, perception is the point where life and imagination meet.” So even political and societal perceptions (and the political and societal problems we perceive) inevitably contain a substantial component called imagination.

Moreover, as British philosopher Gertrude Anscombe (1919–2001) reminds us that “what is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.” I think she means that imagination and institution rarely go hand-in-hand. (One might dare argue that anything “institutional” can never be “imaginative.”)

When faced with a dilemma between the institutional and the imaginative, Tolkien, as a young student, chose the latter path:

I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faerie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. (“On Fairy Stories”)

In a similar vein, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), someone of a quite different British disposition that that of Tolkien, nonetheless once pointed out that philosophy too has a greater need for imaginative thinking than brute science requires:

[In Voltaire’s novel Candide] Dr. Pangloss’s in his study can ascertain what soil of universe would, to his way of thinking, be the best possible; he can also convince himself, so long as he stays in his study, that the universe means to satisfy his ethical demands [that “we live in the best of all possible worlds”].

Bernard Bosanquet, until his death one of the recognized leaders of British philosophy, maintained in his Logic, ostensibly on logical grounds, that “it would be hard to believe, for example, in the likelihood of a catastrophe which should overwhelm a progressive civilization like that of modem Europe and its colonies.”

Capacity to believe that the “laws of thought” have comforting political consequences is, a mark of the philosophic bias.

Philosophy, as opposed to science, springs from a kind of self-assertion: a belief that our purposes have an important relation to the purposes of the universe, and that, in the long run, the course of events is bound to be, on the whole, such as we should wish.

Science abandoned this kind of optimism, but is being led towards another: that we, by our intelligence, can make the world such as to satisfy a large proportion of our desires.

This is a practical, as opposed to a metaphysical, optimism. I hope it will not seem to future generations as foolish as that of Dr. Pangloss.

So how do we sort the philosophy from the fairy story, the institutional science from an unbound civic imagination? Is democracy the best of all possible governance? We might ought to follow the method given by the narrator of Stephen King’s novel Revival (2014):

We debated the validity of each (first in my living room, later in this same bed), eventually putting them into four categories: utter bullshit, probable bullshit, impossible to be sure, and hard not to believe. (p. 239)

Some Notes to Some of the Above

Gertrude E. M. Anscombe, “On the Source of the Authority of the State” (1978) The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), p. 131.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning (1928), (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973; Third Edition), p. 29.

Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge, (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 159.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Lecture on the Slave Trade,” June 16, 1795, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Vol. I Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, eds. Lewis Paton and Peter Mann, (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1971),pp. 235–36; Coleridge, Watchman No. 4. March 35, 1796. Coleridge Works Vol. II, p. 131.

Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives,” Unpopular Essays, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950, 1969), pp. 56–57.

George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy,(New York, Hill & Wang, 1963), p. 240.

Oct 17 2021

When Nothing’s Not New and Everything’s Always Random


Some Recent Encounters with Surrealism in Contemporary Literature


I recently reread the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), a habit which, it seems, occurs every five to ten years.

So it was fresh on my mind when I reviewed Nicole I. Nesca’s short-story/poem “Child” (2017).

And maybe, as Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman says, my attention is too “anchored,” too primed and predisposed to see the surreal when reading recent works of prose, poetry, or something in between.

But it can’t be all that. There must be (a little) something more. For, as Kahneman points out, simply being aware of the biases brought on by an anchor is still only half the battle:

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent). (Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) p. 128)


One of the things (I think) Breton is getting at in the Manifesto is that surrealism existed long before he (or anyone else) gave it a name. Breton, moreover, didn’t let himself be lured by the temptations of Originality. He knew he didn’t invent surrealism. Nor was he afraid to list his precursors on the subject:

Swift is Surrealist in malice,

Sade is Surrealist in sadism….

Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid…

Poe is Surrealist in adventure.

Baudelaire is Surrealist in morality.

Rimbaud is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.

Mallarmé is Surrealist when he is confiding.

And, as I discussed in the Nesca review, part, but not of all, of the “game” (Breton’s word) of surrealism is radical juxtaposition. Let’s let Breton explain again (and admit his unoriginality again):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)….

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

This radical juxtaposition, however, at least in my (mis)understanding of surrealism, brooks no endorsement or herald or call for absolute randomness, á la pseudo-Dadism, anarchism, nihilism, the Voynich manuscript, etcetera. For if surrealism is a “game,” then it must have certain rules. Games remove a certain amount of randomness from any situation. If a game contains so many rules that it (theoretically) removes all randomness from (or within) the game itself, the situation is no longer a game: the situation is a machine: it is completely predictable and repetitive in its outcomes. Or, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson once put it, “Without the random, there can be no new thing,” (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) p. 147).

On the other hand, as Bateson elsewhere pointed out, pure randomness, whether in literature or natural science, can only be achieved via infinite means across an infinite amount of time:

It may well be that any particular pattern (or redundancy) in the method of search will necessarily blind the searcher to certain possible patterns in the universe; and that only RANDOM search can ultimately catch all possible regularities. This ideal will be achieved, however, only by a searcher with infinite time and in a universe which makes available infinite series of data.

(“The Message of Reinforcement” (1966) in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps in an Ecology of Mind, ed. Rodney E. Donaldson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.141–42)

Part of this is because of the difficulty of defining the word “random”:

In both the theory of evolution and the theory of learning, however, the word “random” is conspicuously undefined, and the word is not an easy one to define. In both fields, it is assumed that while change may be dependent upon probabilistic phenomena, the probability of a given change is determined by something different from probability…. The word “random,” upon which all of these explanations turn, appears to be a word whose meaning is hierarchically structured, like the meaning of the word “learning.”

(Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 254–55)


All this is to say that the game of surrealism strikes a balance between pure randomness and absolute predictability. Surrealism, at its best, offers moments of such balance, often through radical juxtaposition, as Margaret O’Brien has recently pointed out:

It’s an odd one, this painting but I’m around long enough to know that when something gives me that little tingle, that draws me back even though I might be perplexed, I know I ought to pay attention. So it is now with The Listening Room. Look at it. It’s either an oversized apple or a very, very small room. Its surrealism stretches my thinking, as Magritte no doubt playfully intended. 

Some recent encounters with surrealism in literature I’ve had include the following emboldened quotations:

The world is a broken lightbulb / no one cares enough about to sweep up. / Please, Marshmallow, lick the glass/ until your tongue bleeds sunlight.

(Austin Davis, “Marshmallow,” Some Houses Are Built with the Wrong Bricks, Massachusetts: Moran Press, 2020)


At first he is ecstatic and brings in his wife who is overjoyed at the lively giant baby. The joy turns to panic soon when they realize the baby is still growing at an alarming rate. After an hour young Philbert is too big to hold. After his nap he is to [sic] big for the house and eats his parents. By the time for “One Life to Live” he had gone through the beach homes of the rich and famous, and working on the western half of Fire Island. By the third rerun of the “Simpsons” he had devoured four million people including the staring back line for the Islanders.

(James Thornton, “Tony Randall vs. the Giant Baby Who Ate Long Island,” Meaty-Ochre no. 1, Austin, Texas: Self-Published, 2019)


Cool sea water sweeps away his jetlag for the time being. Dried off, we eat ice-cream and return to the airport.

(Anthony Rudolf, “Pedraterra,” Two Fables: Pedraterra, Angleterre, (Les Brouzils, France: The Fortnightly Review, 2021) p. 5)

Sep 4 2021

Short Story Review: “Child” (2017) by Nicole I. Nesca

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Nicole I. Nesca’s Let It Bleed (Screamin’ Skull Press, 2017) is a book of prose and poetry—of verse, vignettes, as well as short stories—and a book both Canadian and American.

In it readers will find pairs, symmetries, contrasts, and sometimes, radical juxtaposition—the kind prophesized (though not before acknowledging necessary precursors) by Bard André Breton (a prophecy which still needs hearing in 2021):

A man at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, was writing:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)

Now, it is not within man’s power, so far as I can tell, to effect the juxtaposition of two realities so far apart. The principle of the association of ideas, such as we conceive of it, militates against it.

(André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (c. 1924), trans. unknown)

In Nesca, readers can encounter this idea of radical juxtaposition of either/and with regard to structure-medium-content: similar to the way William Blake’s paintings and poetry can be absorbed with profundity individually, but, when found together, offer an intimidating sense of wonder to those modest readers who nevertheless continue their approach toward Blake’s super-art, though they learn they must approach with fear and trembling.

But in terms of content for either a poem or story—the writing’s agency that acts upon the reader when something jars that reader simply because what the reader encounters is adjacent to something else (and can also occur with painting or music or architecture)—results often in mere perplexity, though occasionally, in sound enlightenment. The results are such things as: McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (1970), a radical juxtaposition of two or three, depending on how you count them, different pieces of music; Tom Hanks in The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) and the irreverence of the title to the movie itself; Metallica’s “One” (1988), which begins as a quiet, solemn dirge toward the singer’s own death, then, shifts into an loud, angry invective against Death itself; Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1989), which is almost two separate movies sandwiched together, though a sandwich with almost nothing in between, so it might be better to say squished; or even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), with its wild rural setting in the South that then moves to the wild metro setting of the North)….

So too with Nesca’s book overall. Particularly, the piece “Child” is what stood out for me upon first-reading (certainly not the last) with its radical juxtaposition.

For here is poetry that flows into prose—but there is a vivid narrative underlying it all, one with a true beginning, middle, and end—yet here also is a clash of lyric and free verse, a clash of Nature’s organic pheasant and Humankind’s artificial rifle, a clash of daughter and father, of life and death.

Or is it not so much a clash, as a balance of all these things?—dare we say a Dao of things?––if my feeble misunderstanding of the Dao is correct? Here I’m thinking of something recently written by Alan MacFarlane, who earlier this summer explained in The Fortnightly Review:

Working in Japan was a larger challenge. As Ruth Benedict, among many western observers, pointed out, the essence of Japan is that it is not an Either/Or civilization, but rather a Both/And one. All categories overlap in Japan and they fluctuate all the time. There are numerous instances of situations and thoughts which do not fit into western binary categories. Just to take one example. I make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, the realm of spirit and normal, secular, activities. So, for me a religious service or prayers are sacred, while a game of football is secular.

This does not work in Japan. Many of the so-called sports and games there, often with an ending which mirrors the idea of ‘dao’, the path or way in Shinto and Buddhist thoughts, are both sacred and secular. This is the case with ju-doken-dosu-mo, and with Noh opera. It is true of archery, of sword-making, of the ‘way’ of tea (cha-do), the way of gardens. Indeed, it turns out to be true of all Japanese art and all its crafts, which are both spiritual and secular at the same time.

So, yes, I think Nicole Nesca is getting at something like that Dao, or balance or sense of both-and rather than either-or––in particular in her story-poem “Child,” but also, her book Let It Bleed maybe getting at something similar overall. Overall, this is a book I intend to return to. There is definitely something wild going in Winnipeg, and ’tis nothing to do with weather nor wildlife.