The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind (Part II of II)

Mark Twain in Athens

The Enveloping Imagination: Wildfire Consuming the Open Prairies of the Mind
(Part II of II)

Wildfire on the mind-lands, burning books and paintings, consuming ink and hue—this marks the imagination in action. It reaches for Van Gogh one moment, Kafka the next. Flames lick at critical reflections from Arendt and Kaufmann—smoke and soot surround C. S. Lewis and J. S. Mill in Dickensian fashion. The prairie is full of fire. The enveloping imagination burns wild.

Last time at Bookbread, readers were initially presented with comments by Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) on Kafka and van Gogh and how the final act of creation occurs when the audience begins to think:

It often appears in works of art, especially in Kafka’s early prose pieces or in some paintings of van Gogh where a single object, a chair, a pair of shoes, is represented. But these art works are thought-things, and what gives them their meaning—as though they were not just themselves but for themselves—is precisely the transformation they have undergone when thinking took possession of them.
(The Life of the Mind Vol. I. Thinking, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), p.184)

Arendt’s remarks should be compared to those of Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) when he compares the letters of Kafka (1883–1924) to those by Van Gogh (1853–1890). Kaufmann sees a similarity in how each artist was able to almost detach themselves from themselves while thinking about themselves:

If ever a great artist worked under the spell of inspiration it was Vincent van Gogh. He created literally hundreds of the finest paintings in the world in a mere four years. Of his high emotional tension and total, self-sacrificing devotion there is no doubt, yet his copious letters to his brother show how far he was from regarding the fruits of his inspiration as sacrosanct. Even when committed to an asylum, he never lost or disparaged his critical powers. He discussed his works as well as his situation with a rarely equaled lucidity that furnishes a startling contrast to Buber, not to speak of Benjamin, Adorno, and Heidegger. Freud’s and Kafka’s letters are also free of falseness, pretense, and murkiness but not so intense. All three men—van Gogh, Kafka, and Freud—were distinguished by an amazing capacity for detachment from themselves and could see themselves from above.
(Discovering the Mind Vol. II: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Buber, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 256)

At one point in the 1919 letter to his father, Kafka’s explains what he’s trying to do with his writing:

I have already indicated that in my writing, and in everything connected with it, I have made some attempts at independence, attempts at escape, with the very smallest of success; they will scarcely lead any farther; much confirms this for me.
(Brief An Den Vater (Letter to his Father), trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, (New York: Schocken. 1971), p. 117)

And about forty years before Kafka’s letter, at one point in a letter to his brother, Van Gogh explains what he’s trying to do with his painting:

Of the drawings which I will show you now I think only this: I hope they will prove to you that I am not remaining stationary in my work, but progress in a direction that is reasonable. As to the money value of my work, I do not pretend to anything else than that it would greatly astonish me if my work were not just as salable in time as that of others. Whether that will happen now or later I cannot of course tell, but I think the surest way, which cannot fail, is to work from nature faithfully and energetically. Feeling and love for nature sooner or later find a response from people who are interested in art. It is the painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work, so that it becomes intelligible to other people.
(“To Theo, The Hague, July 31, 1882,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. (London: Constable, 1929), ed. Mark Roskill, (New York: Touchstone, 2008), pp. 159–60)

But back to Arendt and her observation that “the transformation they [Kafka and Van Gogh’s early works] have undergone when thinking took possession of them”––for C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), the great artist like Kafka or Van Gogh presents a “total response to the world”:

Very roughly, we might almost say that in Rhetoric imagination is present for the sake of passion (and, therefore, in the long run, for the sake of action), while in poetry passion is present for the sake of imagination, and therefore, in the long run, for the sake of wisdom or spiritual health—the rightness and richness of a man’s total response to the world….

The idea of a poetry which exists only for the poet—a poetry which the public rather overhears than hears––is a foolish novelty in criticism. There is nothing specially admirable in talking to oneself.
(A Preface to Paradise Lost, (Oxford UP, 1942; Galaxy Book, 1961), p. 54)

Lewis is here riffing on an earlier observation by John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) that:

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action. (“What is Poetry?” (1833))

Between Kaufmann, Lewis, and Mill, readers might surmise: whatever the status of the reader, writer-artists tend to overhear themselves when they are rereading-rewriting their works. As overhearers of their own works, writer-artists must somewhat negate themselves during the act of overhearing (if overhearing here means the process of rereading-rewriting). The enveloping imagination negates as it consumes. Yet a fire cannot catch itself on fire…..


I think Kafka hints at the overhearing-through-reading mentioned by Mill when, in an early story, Kafka’s character of Raban points out the inevitable connections that are made between reading two random works:

“Well, it isn’t so important,” Raban said. “I was only going to say books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.”
(“Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country”) (1907–08), trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971), pp. 74–75)

It is as if, while reading, one overhears the comparison of one book to another, or one passage from one book to another (much like how this blog post was written).

Van Gogh was, at least in his early life, notoriously unmethodical (that is, random) in his reading. As his sister-in-law Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger observed:

No other thing has taken its place yet; he draws much and reads much, among others, Dickens, Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, and Michelet, but it is all done without system or aim.
(“Memoir by His Sister-in-Law,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, p. 50)

And as Mark Roskill, editor of Van Gogh’s letters, put it:

It was characteristic of him to identify himself with fictional heroes, and to pick out from the books he read whatever seemed to have a moral and spiritual application to his own destiny.
(“[Note to] To Theo, Paris, February 19, 1876,” The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, p. 94)

Other critics of Vincent have noted:

Van Gogh always needed an intellectual framework for defending his opinions, his projects, and the positions he took. When he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos, for example, he plumbed Michelet in search of justifications for his stubborn arguments for marriage, contrary to the opinions of everyone around him, and also contrary to the wishes of the person in question. Along the way, he did not hesitate to take quotations out of context, to abbreviate them, to paraphrase them … an effective way of joining ranks with a thinker whose aura and gravity preclude any attempt at further argument.
(Wouter van der Veen and Peter Knapp, Van Gogh in Auvers: His Last Days, (New York: Monacelli Press, 2009), pp. 40–41)

Yet is there any way the arguments in this blog post could be taken further?


Let the present reader find something more random than Bookbread can feed them—perhaps only then could the argument be carried along to some new place—only by a kind of overhearing of oneself whilst reading….. burning while brooding…. the enveloping imagination transfixed on the unbound horizon of the mind-land prairie it has yet to consume…. yearning to burn all into the background.


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