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.

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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”)

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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.

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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.