Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Importance of the Imagination 1

Il Torso del Belvedere, Vativcan Museum, October 2009
1. Imagination and Tradition

I remember way back at college one of our erudite English Lit lecturers, one Dr. Mary Fitzgerald (daughter of Dr Garret Fitzgerald, former Taoiseach of Ireland) remarking rather perspicaciously, if not more obviously, that many readers were often a century or two out of date in their reading material.  I still know many lovers of the works of Jane Austin or Charles Dickens or indeed George Eliot, my own favourite author from the past.  Who could possibly forget that dry old stick of a character Casaubon in her great novel Middlemarch who was searching for the elusive "key to all mythologies."?  I suppose there is some truth in Dr Fitzgerald's comments.  It was as if our imagination is more at home with a more straight forward and obvious storyline or plot and with the "omniscient narrator."



2.  The Modernist  Imagination:

As an erstwhile theologian, who has long left the more literal shores of theology for the more metaphoric ones of philosophy and the more experiential and existential ones of psychology, I have read widely on the Modernist crisis within the Roman Catholic Church in the late nineteenth century (a former brilliant lecturer of mine, Rev. Dr. Gabriel Conor Daly O.S.A. wrote the definitive work on this period in the Catholic Church called Transcendence and Immanence, published by OUP.) which then lingered into the twentieth century and witnessed the late great modernising Pope John XXIII actually writing on his own file in the Vatican words like:  "I am no modernist."  A highly centralised  and controlling religion like that of Roman Catholicism had/ has no time for anything but its own doctrines and dogma.  The imaginative leaps which the modernist theologians were taking were simply anathema at that time.  Interestingly, the simple spirituality of the wonderful human being who was Pope John  XXIII  brought the whirlwind that was Vatican ll whose liberating and modernising (if not modernist) policies were only half enforced. The irony was that John XXIII was the great Modernist and Modernising Pope of the twentieth century while all who have followed him since "in the fisherman's shoes" have been centralizing and extreme traditionalists seeking to turn the clock back.   

Then, as I also studied English literature for some four years I was conscious of the Modernist Movement within the literary field also.  If the centuries preceding the nineteenth, with some substantial lingering of old values into that century too, focussed on the monolithic structures in religion and civil society in general -  in the words of Robert Browning's poem Pippa's Song: "God's in his heaven// All's right with the world." -Modernism in art and literature can be seen as a growth of a new international sensitivity and understanding of humanity that revolves around the idea of individualism and, ergo, the mistrust of institutions (government, religion), and the disbelief of any absolute truths.  What religion - and most religions are into control of the beliefs of their flock - can allow individual beliefs?  This, I emphasize is a question, not a statement, as I don't necessarily believe that all religions are monolithic and centralising and strangling of the individual conscience and indeed the individual spirit of it adherents, but that is the topic for another post.

Modernism as a literary movement reached its height in Europe between 1900 and the middle 1920s and numbered such literary luminaries like Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot (who, quite unusually for a Modernist, became a devout member of The Anglican Community.  However, I should point out that Anglicanism is not as monolithic or as centralising as the Roman Catholic Church.  It does allow for a more broad church and a more individualist take on its doctrines), Josef Conrad, and W.B. Yeats.  There were, of course, many more.  Modernist literature addressed aesthetic problems similar to those examined in non-literary forms of contemporaneous Modernist Art, such as Modernist Painting. Gertrude Stein's abstract writings, for example, have often been compared to the fragmentary and multi-perspectival Cubism of her friend Pablo Picasso. The sociologist, Georg Simmel gives a rather a good insight into Modernism where he describes it thus:

"The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life."  (see this link here Modernist Literature
The Post-Modernist Imagination

I managed to get my head around Modernism alright as the focus on the individual was/is one of its main thrusts, and this, as any reader of this blog, will attest to is one of the slants this present writer has in his own literary, philosophical, psychological and spiritual views.  The Modernist World is one where the individual imagination can roam free, unfettered by monolithic beliefs forced upon it from outside.  A new freedom shot through and shoots (as modernism still proceeds alongside postmodernism today) through all Modernist Literature - a more realistic and hard-headed Romanticism, if that is not a contradiction in terms. I never did quite get my head around the Post-Modernist Movement, exemplified in the wonderful work of our own very great author Samuel Beckett.  Try reading his Imagination Dead, Imagine and there you will encounter postmodernism in all its lack of glory, in all its minimalism, in all its pared-down-to-the-last aspects.  As Brian Finney, the great English Literature critic and scholar puts it, in words that make sense to me:


Beckett shares with Borges the distinction of inaugurating in literature what has come to be called postmodernism. The term is still the subject of heated debate. It clearly refers to that which succeeds modernism, itself an international movement that broke with nineteenth century forms of realism. But the impetus of modernism has continued to the present day, so that postmodernism coexists with that which it claims to displace. The phenomenon of postmodernism then cannot be explained in purely temporal terms.



(First published in The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed.John Richetti. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 842-66.)
There is in this movement, then, a radical epistemological break with our understanding of what the human sciences and even I suggest a rather healthy, integrated and holistic imagination have to offer. What characterizes the Postmodern is the abandonment of those grand narratives that began with the Enlightenment, such as the liberation of humanity or the unification of all knowledge, and certainly the abandonment of what S.T. Coleridge, the great philosopher-poet of the Romantic period of English Literature called the esemplastic power of the human imagination.  By this Coleridge meant anything that was unifying of the whole of our experience and having the power to shape disparate things into a unified whole. This, I am a sunscriber to myself as is Bryan Magee, the major populariser of philosophy in the twentient and early twenty-first century and the late great Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist Dr Anthony Storr.   The Postmodern imagination is far too stark for me.  All the more humanising and integrating thoughts, feelings and values we know as human beings have been stripped away.  The unstable, heterogeneous and dispersed social reality of the postmodern cannot be contained within any totalizing theory.  There are simply no meatanarratives, no outside unifying theme, no great metaphysical theory.  In the words of Brian Finney again:

Without such metanarratives, Lyotard argues, each work of art, "working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done," becomes a unique event describing its own process of coming into being.(First published in The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed.John Richetti. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 842-66.)

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