Friday, August 13, 2010

The Importance of the Imagination 2

S.T. Coleridge

A young S. T. Coleridge
There is so much that one can write about the imagination, that often it is very hard to know where to begin.  From the first time I read S.T. Coleridge's wonderful poems like The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, Frost at Midnight which he wrote with his young infant son Hartley in his crib beside him, Kubla Khan, Christabel and many more, and especially his wonderfu critical/philosophical/autobiographical Biografia Literaria I was captivated by this great philosopher of the imagination.  He was one of the foremost Romantic poets of his day, good friend of Wordsworth and essentially the philosopher supreme of that movement.  His character captivated me from the outset because he was passionate (and indeed compassionate), an addict to opium in the form of laudanum which could be obtained easily at any apothecary, a tortured soul in love, a committed walker, a lover of the wilds of nature, a great celebrant of life, a colourful character who was a poor horseman that had to be bought out of the cavalry, a lover of humanity, a "damaged archangel" as some critic called him and a raconteur and bon-viveur par excellence. He is one charcater from all of literature that I should really have liked to have met.  One could never be depressed in his company.  Beside him, William Wordsworth, while obviously a brilliant poet, is very much a monochrome character.  Coleridge (1772-1834) was simply technicolour. 

This English poet is important in the history of philosophy as one of the main conduits by which both the work of Kant and German Romanticism were introduced into England. Coleridge visited Germany in 1798 and began a period of intense study and assimilation of thinkers including Kant and Schelling. Like them, Coleridge propounded a view of individual spiritual salvation far removed from simple Enlightenment and utilitarian confidence in social engineering and material progress.  Magee, whom I have been reading to get a handle on Arthur Schopenhauer's thought, argues, and it is true, that Coleridge stole much of Schelling's philosophy of the arts.  Be that as it may the Romantic poet/philosopher did gargantuan work on the nature of the imagination.  I especially liked his argument that the imagination was essentially an esemplastic power, namely that faculty that has the power to shape disparate things into a unified whole.  That won over and overwhelmed my young mind completely.

The Redress of Poetry: Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney in poetic flight
I bought The Redress of Poetry many years ago, whenever Heaney first wrote it.  At the time I speed-read it, not having much time to ponder the work itself, which is certainly not the way to read anything Heaney writes because his thoughts, whether in prose or poetry, tend to be be finely argued, wonderfully expressed and deep and meaningful in the most positive understanding of these two adjectives.  However, I re-discovered this book recently through a wonderful introduction Heaney wrote not so long ago to Amnesty International's  From The Republic of Conscience -  a collection of stories to celebrate the sixty years' anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (62 years now). This brief re-acquaintance with this work will send me off to find the book and properly read it this time.

Anyway, in his wonderful introduction Heaney makes the important point that the work of creative writers is very important because it will to some extent redress the balance in the world of all human culture.  This is probably asking too much of literature, but I argue here that this impulse to redress whatever is out of kilter in human culture is a highly Romantic impulse.  It is an impulse that goes back to the likes of the German philosophers Kant, Schelling and company, and back to Coleridge also who pretty much brought the German influence into the English speaking world..  Anyway here, I would like to quote at some length from Heaney's introduction to this wee anthology because of its insight into the practical role of the human imagination in the lived world. 

Once again, I find this to be very much Romantic in impulse in the pure Coleridgean or Schelling sense, but that is what makes it practical and useful.  Here is where I have problems with the postmodernist movement because its imagination is splintered and fractured, unable to envisage or envision any positive way forward, anything at all by the way of redress in the balance of things, any medicine at all to ease the pain of living.  Postmodernism is far too bleak and depressing for this author.  Now, let us ponder these wise. positive, and necessarily romantically-rooted thoughts on the power of the imagination as outlined by our Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, all of which is very much in the tradition of the likes of Schelling and Coleridge:


It is this vulnerable yet spiritually inviolate quality which makes them [The Articles of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights] attractive not only to the wronged and the oppressed of the earth, but to writers and poets as well.  The Universal Declaration is not a sure-fire panacea for the world's ills.  It is more geared to effect what I once called "the redress of poetry" than to intervene like a superpower.  The idea of redress I discovered first in Simone Weil's book Gravity and Grace , where she observes that if we know the way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter side of the scale.  The Universal Declaration, it seems to me, adds this kind of weight and contributes thereby to the maintenance of equilibrium - never entirely achieved - between rights and wrongs.

Writers and poets are also capable of adding this kind of weight...  When faced with the direct speech of The Declaration, many of them thought to conjure up work that functions as a counterweight to the given actuality of the world.  The writings they place in the scale may only be imagined, but if the imagining is credible, if it persuades us to suspend our disbelief, it will be part of the redress that human dignity, human rights, human reason, human consciousness all desire and deserve. 
(From The Republic of Conscience: Stories Inspired by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Liberties Press, Dublin, 2009, p. 16)

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