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.

Aug 8 2018

The Purpose of this Book Blog

The Purpose of This Book Blog

I’ve pointed out before that George Steiner has pointed out:

What we need (I have argued this elsewhere) are not ‘programs in the humanities,’ ‘schools of creative writing,’ ‘programs in creative criticism’ (mirabile dictu [a wonderful tale], these exist). What we need are places, i.e., a table with some chairs around it, in which we can learn again how to read, how to read together… We need ‘houses of and for reading….’ Servants to the text. (“ ‘Critic’/ ‘Reader’.” New Literary History. 10 (Spring 1979): 423–52 at 452 also in George Steiner: a Reader. (1987).)

The purpose of Bookbread has always followed this model. Now Alan Jacobs gets at what this same purpose is, and has been, when he talks about this thing called humanism:

Nov 15 2016

George Steiner and Rod Dreher

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

George Steiner and Rod Dreher

Today, at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher finishes off a long item noting:

This is a time and this is a place in which we do not need politicians and pundits, but rather poets, priests, and prophets. We need those who can read the signs of the times, and reveal to us the phoenixes rising from the corpses of swans and the source of life and renewal beyond the leaf-choked fountains.

Along these lines was George Steiner, who over twenty years ago plead:

What we need (I have argued this elsewhere) are not ‘programs in the humanities,’ ‘schools of creative writing,’ ‘programs in creative criticism’ (mirabile dictu [a wonderful tale], these exist). What we need are places, i.e., a table with some chairs around it, in which we can learn again how to read, how to read together… We need ‘houses of and for reading….’ Servants to the text…[i]



[i] “ ‘Critic’/ ‘Reader’.” New Literary History. Vol. 10. No. 3. (Spring 1979.) 423–52 at 452 also in George Steiner: a Reader. (1987).


May 2 2016

MISREADING & MISTRANSLATING: Between Boredom & Bombast

bookbread Canterbury

Misreading & Mistranslating: between Boredom & Bombast

The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted. What is that but saying, that we have come up with the point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we have been that man, and have passed on.


Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are as old as Adam.


A philistine is habitually bored and looks for things that won’t bore him. An artist finds things boring, but is never bored.


“You don’t impress me at all,” she said, “Everything you say is boring and incomprehensible, but that alone doesn’t make it true. What I really think, sir––why do you always call me dear Fräulein?––is that you can’t be bothered with the truth simply because it’s too tiring.”


Reading Theory I: Somewhere in After Babel (1975) George Steiner writes that there is no such thing as proper translation—there are only mistranslations (some better than others), and that creative mistranslation is the job of the interpretant.

Reading Practice I: A few weeks ago in Al Cantion, a seafood restaurant in Comacchio, northeast Italy––with the icon of Sophia Loren centered high on one of the walls, beaming, bearing down on all the restaurant’s patrons––I, Bookbread, and my company Cosimo and Chiara and Scott were eating some delicious seafood when someone at our table mentioned the name Alessandro Manzoni in passing.

Because Bookbread cannot tell a lie under Sophia’s watchful eye, I confessed to my company that I Promessi sposi (Betrothed) (1827) was, for me, a boring read, hadn’t been that bored reading since a tenth grade assignment covering Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (1836).

But Italian natives Cosimo and Chiara (both university educated, the former from the rustic south, the latter from urban Rome) thought Manzoni boring also, and couldn’t understand why he continues to be so revered by educators of Italian Literature, when even the Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel (2003) informs us:

I promessi sposi was a required text in schools. Up to a generation or so ago, it was not unusual to find Italians able to recite from memory long passages from the most famous pages of the novel.[5]

Bookbread remembered to thank Sophia how Manzoni could, occasionally, offer moments of slight self-depreciation in a tongue-in-cheek style:

The reader should know that among the common people in Milan, and even more in the country, the word ‘poet’ does not mean what it means among all respectable folk—a sacred genius, an inhabitant of Pindus, a votary of the Muses: it means a peculiar person who’s a bit crazy, and talks and behaves with more wit and oddity than sense. What an impertinent habit this is of the common people’s manhandling words and making them say things so very far from their legitimate meaning! For what, I ask you, has writing poetry got to do with being a bit crazy?[6]

Reading Theory II: Somewhere in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) Harold Bloom writes that there is no such thing as properly reading a poem––there are only misreadings (some better than others), and that creative misreading is the job of the literary critic.

Reading Practice II: A week after Comacchio, in the shadow of the Texas Capitol, a fellow writer and brother-in-law of Bookbread’s called Brick Made, invited me to the Chili Parlor because he was curious about Bookbread’s recent trip to Italia.

Memories of Bookbread’s visit through Emilia-Romagna were soon imparted to Brick Made. Later in the conversation I mentioned, without hesitation or criticism, that Bookbread didn’t understand Brick Made’s latest published short story about baseball. Ten years ago, when face to face with a writer, Bookbread would have told that person, “I liked it” whatever it was I just read of theirs, whether I truly did or not. Now too much truth spills out, and I think I’ve made a mess at the chili parlor.

“Oh, there’s nothing to get,” says Brick Made. “It was literary clickbait, an exercise in the gonzo-esque, trolling for what counts as trendy.”

“Well, trolling can be good. The random can be good. The story was really random. Bateson says somewhere that ‘without the random, there can be no new thing.’ ”[7]

“Yea, I carpet-bombed them with Dadaism. I wrote it to purposely make no sense—as randomly as possible––that’s what the mag wanted.”

“Benevolent blitzkrieg. But we’re in election season, so perhaps it’s appropriate.”

“Egg and face and all that. But they paid me. And published me. So I’m happy. Joke’s on them.”

(Another example of trolling the trendy: Edward Snowden/Scissorhands on CNN )



[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar: Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 31, 1837.”

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Economy.”

[3] Kraus, Karl. Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms. Edited and Translated by Harry Zohn. Engendra Press: Montreal. Reprint Chicago UP. 1976. p. 52.

[4] Kafka, Franz. “Beschreibung Eines Kampfes.” (“Description of a Struggle.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. p. 37.

[5] Ragusa, Olga. “Alessandro Manzoni and developments in the historical novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel. Eds. Peter Bondanella and Andrea Ciccarelli. Cambridge UP. 2003. p. 43.

[6] Manzoni, Alessandro. I Promessi Sposi. (Betrothed.) 1840. Translated by Fr Kenelm Foster. 1964. Edited by David Forgacs and Matthew Reynolds. London, UK: J. M. Dent. 1997. XIV, pp. 204–05.

[7] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. p. 147.


Mar 2 2016

Plato and Dante: Scattered Thoughts on Spinning Tops

bookbread pencil shavings

This is a scattered post I’ve been working on for the past three weeks…. Is it pastiche, goulash, a patchwork quilt perhaps? ….

Some old books, such as Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Commedia, act on the reader like spinning tops,[1] where each page can be read both centrifugally and centripetally. The centrifugal reading seeks the essence, the thesis, of Plato and Dante—it asks how those authors relate to themselves within their works. On the other hand, centripetal reading seeks to connect the Commedia and Republic to any and every other kind of knowledge—it asks how their works relate to everyone else’s works and knowledge.

I’m thinking about things centrifugal and centripetal because after Texas’ Super Tuesday 2016 my head keeps spinning. So weary of hearing a conservative political-follower say America has lost its faith in a god––so weary of hearing a liberal political-follower say America has lost its faith in a government.[2] Have we lost faith in political leadership and believe only in our own political followership?

I do not expect our poets to be politicians, nor do I expect our politicians to be poets. Yes, in the days of Plato and Dante a poet and politician could be one in the same, but why now does that dual-role sound like a contradiction? What is the clash ringing in our ears? ….

Both Plato and Dante were politician-poets. But Plato gave up politics, while politics gave up Dante. The Florence comune exiled Dante with threat of death while the Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to self-execution….

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth. Plato was a corrupted youth who forswore politics. Dante was accused of being an incorruptible politician. Socrates is offered exile, but death, for him and unlike Dante, is a better choice….

In the Commedia, Dante is the representative of the living. In the eyes of the dead he is poet-politician-leader. Neither Plato nor Socrates speaks to the dead. But Plato does bring Socrates back to life, for by the grace of Plato’s pen, Socrates is resurrected into the everlasting life of dialogue….

When Plato has Socrates speak of contradictions, he writes things like:

[Someone] might say of a spinning top that the whole thing stands still and turns at the same time, when it fixes the peg in one spot and goes round and round upon it, and so also anything else does this that goes round in a circle in the same place, but we should not accept that. We should say that such things are not resting and revolving in the same parts of themselves, but they have a straight part (the axis) and a circling part (the periphery); in the straight part it moves round; and when it leans the perpendicular to right or left or front or back while it revolves, then it does not stand still anymore…. So such a saying will not dismay us, and it will never convince us that the same thing in the same place towards the same thing could sometimes be or do or suffer two opposites.[3]

So contradictions for Plato are like spinning tops where two things––a centripetal-axis from which the top spins and a centrifugal tangent of the outermost edge of the top’s surface––almost appear as one. (Yet here it might be apt to recall a dictum from Gregory Bateson: “it takes two to know one.”)[4] We know that the two things really aren’t one but aren’t quite sure where to mark the divide between them.

Wittgenstein says that when you encounter a contradiction, instead of worrying about whether it exists or not, you must repent from the way of thinking that originally led you to the contradiction––

to get a clear view of the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved.  (And this does not mean that one is sidestepping a difficulty).[5]

For Wittgenstein, comprehending a contradiction is all about backpedaling, retrenching, repenting of present sins (mistakes in one’s thinking) and returning to prior piety. In other words, one must turn around and retread over the previous course, just as YHVH repents to Moses…. [6]

Now when Dante speaks of contradictions, he writes things like:

dal quale in qua stato li sono a’ crini;
ch’assolver non si può chi non si pente,
né pentere e volere insieme puossi

 [one can’t absolve a man who’s not repented,
and no one can repent and will at once;
the law of contradiction won’t allow it.][7]

The Italian humanist Poggio Braccidini, who lived a generation after Dante, provides a perplexing twist to Dante’s take on contradictions:

A certain man, either seriously or to play a trick on the priest, went to him saying that he wished to confess his sins. Invited to say what he remembered of his wickedness, he related that he had stolen something from another, but added that this other had stolen more from him.

Said the confessor: “One thing cancels out another, so you are quits now.”

Then the man added that he had beaten a certain fellow with a stick, but that he had received several blows in return from this person.

And the priest said that here, too, one thing cancelled out another, and that all was well.

At last the penitent said that there remained a sin for which he was much ashamed, and blushed before the priest to have to tell it.

The confessor exhorted him to forget his shame and reveal the sin. Yielding at last to the persistence of the friar, the man said: “I once had your sister.”

“And I”, replied the priest, “on several occasions had your mother, and here, as in the other cases, one thing cancels out another.”

And for this equality in sin, he absolved him.[8]

Does Poggio’s facetiae, his bawdy, brief tale, lead to contradictions, or does it absolve contradictions?

I leave as I came: with my head spinning.




[1] See Northrop Frye’s remarks in The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton UP (1957):

Whenever we read anything, we find our attention moving in two directions at once. One direction is outward or centrifugal, in which we keep going outside our reading, from the individual words to the things they mean, or, in practice, to our memory of the conventional association between them. The other direction is inward or centripetal, in which we try to develop from the words a sense of the larger verbal pattern they make. (p. 73)

Compare, George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy, NY: Knopf (1961), for whom Dante is more centrifugal than Shakespeare, while the latter is vice versa:

Whereas Dante’s vision bends all light rays toward a controlling centre, Shakespeare’s sense of the world appears to move outward. (p. 21)

[2] For examples, see: Johnson, Byron. “The good news about evangelicalism.” February 2011. First Things. (; “Trust in Government” Gallup. (; “Confidence in U.S. Branches of Government Remains Low” Gallup. (

[3] Plato, Republic, IV 436A–436D. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1969.

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113.

[5] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. 1953. I, § 125.

[6] Exodus 32:9–14; Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” In Martin Buber’s Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. NY: Scribner. 1970. pp. 34–37.

[7] Alighieri, Dante. Inferno XXVII, 117–19. In Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[8] Braccidini, Poggio. In The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. London, UK: Dutton. 1927. LXXX 106–07.