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Chapter 5

Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics


IN LOOKING at the life of Miss Vanessa Hall of Cleveland, Ohio, we can say that her life is an addition of two factors: Miss Vanessa Hall and whatever is not Miss Vanessa Hall. When she feels bad these two factors are in some arrangement, when she feels good the arrangement may be different but the factors as a whole are the same. When Miss Hall is puzzled, the factors still are the same. When she is in glee, they have not changed; when she is exultant they haven't and when she is sick they haven't. It, consequently, appears that the life of Miss Hall, as it changes, is a change of arrangement and form. That goes for the lives of all of us.

     Since form is decisive, basic, in the lives of Miss Vanessa Hall and all Clevelanders and all non-Clevelanders, the idea of form becomes important. It is that idea of form which distinguishes the imagined world of a Shakespeare in The Tempest—which an alienist, too, may delight seeing—and the world of a resident of an Ohio hospital. It may be said of a patient in a mental hospital: "His talk is incoherent, less coherent than it was two months ago." It is apparent that the terms "coherent" and "incoherent" have their aesthetic relevance. When the actions of a mentally ailing person are described as "disorderly," even the word "disorderly" is connected with an idea of form. When it is said of a schizophrenic: "He is diseased in his self-exaltation"; and when it is said of a person in business: "He has a constant, healthy confidence in himself," the diseased self-exaltation of the ailing pauper is taken to be quantitatively and formally different from the "healthy confidence" of the businessman. Again the word form seems important.

     If imagination is necessary and inevitable, and if, nevertheless, imagination may lead to catastrophe, then a careful study of that which differentiates felicitous from calamitous imagination is required. Well, that study, by whomever made, if it is on the subject and thorough, will be an aesthetic study. Is not an important psychiatric question: How can imagination be unhindered and beneficial? I have no doubt that it is.

     On what is all imagination based? It is based on something known, that is, something which being an object outside a self, has in some way become that self. It should be seen that there is no experience or feeling whatsoever that does not have something of the known to it. Whenever a thing is known the organism knowing it does something or other to it. We desire to know but we also desire to be pleased. Where a new thing seems to be against our idea of comfort or pleasure, it is quite plain that the knowing will be tampered with. The desire for comfort or pleasure, as such, is a phase of the self in its smallness, in its exclusiveness, in its desire to approve of what it is at the expense of everything else. This desire is ineradicable, basic; it is inherent in life itself. It may be described as the self when centripetal. It is the self as converging. The other desire: for the enlargement, the widening, the radiating of self is related to knowing. This is equivalent to saying that truth and pleasure are simultaneous, inherent, indispensable aspects of what we are.

     It has been thought over the years that the tendency towards truth and the tendency towards pleasure, like oil and water, ordinary cat and ordinary dog, ice and sun, must battle and that the poor human soul tossed about in the battle, had to take complainingly one side or the other. Freud's psychoanalytic statements about the conflict between the reality principle and the "id," though seemingly protesting against previous notions of the make-up of self, here at least were in keeping with them; decidedly so. I do not believe that Freud's distinctions among the egos are any too lucid or satisfying. What, however, I wish to point out here is the similarity of Freud's ideas at bottom to those had by a 17th-century divine, an 18th-century moralist, or a 19th-century lay writer on ethical questions. When (leaving aside other matters) Freud stated that one aspect of the ego was intent on nothing but its own aggrandizement, its own power, and its own gratification; and that another was more watchful, more regardful of the rights of others, more timid, he was really stating the old idea that there is a selfish and an altruistic principle in us. Freud, with new terminology, was once more saying that the self, going for truth or reality, was opposed to the self going for lustful joys, power, and the showing of its hate for others when they interfered with its sensual and other satisfactions. Freud has implied that two egos (if not three) are in a swirling battle, chiefly unconscious; and has also implied that the battle was in the nature of things; that one could look at it, give it bounds, but that it could not be done away with.

     Freud's attitude towards the egos within us, is neither accurate nor complete. In the same way as medicine is a useful background for the study of mind, so is philosophy; and Freud was one of the many who ignorantly depreciated that close and thorough study of the abstract which philosophy is at its best. Ego, as such, is an abstract idea and it is hardly possible to understand an abstract idea while having an aversion for the study of the abstract itself. The egos within us can be unified and are not—inevitably—at war. The self as desiring or imagining need not be in combat with the self as ethical or considering. The animal in us is ready to go along with the cognitive.

     Where imagination is wrong ethics will be. One does not have a disproportionate picture of the world without having a disproportionate evaluation. Further, where knowledge is amiss, imagination will be. The merging of the joyous, the righteous, and the accurate has been a constant dream of the centuries; and it is one dream that has a basis in harsh logic.

     We all of us have pictures of the world in our minds—and these pictures are of imagination; the beauty and rightness of these pictures depend on how much we can see the world as what it is.

     One of the earliest and most frequent things that can happen to a human mind is to see the world as inimical. The world is a constant partner of every one of us. We are compelled to have pictures of it. When we remember a tree it is the tree plus ourselves that is in our mind; when we remember a person it is that person plus ourselves which we remember; when we remember a happening ourselves have been joined to that happening. Yet it is likely that the object with which, in some way, we are compelled to join ourselves is disliked or feared by us because we feel that giving everything the object has to it, will interfere with our own comfort, prerogative, importance. We don't have junctions with the world; we have collisions or evasions or quarrels.

     Dreams are, of course, the best known evidence of the fact that we must imagine. They show that not only do we get impressions but that we combine them, change them, alter them, transform them—that we make them undergo a profound logical masquerade in our minds. Dreams cannot be fully understood until the imagination, as such, is fully understood. The study of the imagination would belong to metaphysics or aesthetics: and Freud and many others have shied away disapprovingly from this study.

     First of all, every one of us has imagined a complete world for himself or herself. That world has constantly to run up against the world as it fully is. Our picture of the world is unceasingly in contact with that world from which the picture came. And we all of us have a philosophy. One doesn't get a philosophy by studying it in a learned establishment; one has it by being alive. Is it not important, then, since a philosophy of this kind is inevitable, that it be made as nearly as possible adequate? How can that adequacy be reached?

     A most obvious requirement for adequacy in any field at all is the desire for adequacy. We have two general impulses in us: one towards the broad and comprehensive; another towards the narrow and concentrated. I have mentioned previously various conflicts arising from universal points of view. One pair of universal views may be described as the specialized and the expansive. We are all specialists from the beginning in so far as we must specialize in ourselves. The self is, in one sense, the last thing in particularity and uniqueness. This particularity or uniqueness has the job, equivalent to life, of imagining, that is, having to make act in it a comprehensive, variable world. The self, however, feels secure when it is intact; and intactness it is likely to see as being achieved only by narrowness or specialization.

     In a previous writing (The Aesthetic Meaning of Psychiatry), there was Mr. Daniel Parkinson of the 18th century. Mr. Parkinson imagined a world but imagined it preponderantly by means of one symbol. Imagination fiercely narrowed is equivalent to mania. Imagination of the healthy kind has in it concentration. It must be able, for example, to see a scene with a fierce stripping of needless details, to see a world as symbolized by one thing or a group of things. A symbol is, from one point of view, always concentration. But whereas the symbol used by the miser Daniel Parkinson tended to annul other symbols, a symbol in true imagination will, in its compactness, make for suggestion and richness and universality.

     An obsession is a kind of concentration. As I shall show later, obsessions are symbolical punishments that we give ourselves because we feel that what the obsessions symbolize has been neglected by us. It is a kind of diseased concentration making up for an evasion or dislike of objects in their inclusiveness. Where imagination does not possess both compactness and expansiveness, it is that much diseased.

     It is true that we imagine what we want. It is also true that one of the hardest things to do is to know what we want; for what we want is our very selves. Whatever we want comes from objects and therefore we find ourselves wanting the possibilities of objects and still perhaps hating those objects. We want to be pleased by things in the world and yet we may hate the world itself. This makes for a terrific interference with the imaginative process. For there can be no healthy imagination that is not based on belief; and there is no sound belief possible without a love for reality; and there is no love possible without the desire to know.

     Psychologists of various types—behaviorists and psychoanalysts and orthodox psychiatrists—have dealt with mind but have not, I think, seen the very wonder of mind at its simplest. If one talks of the wonder of mind it is likely that one will be seen as a rapt mystic or some fuzzy pursuer of non-certified dreams. Nevertheless, the having of the slightest impression is, strictly speaking, a matter of wonder. The fact that one can have within his mind a picture of a lake three miles wide which he saw three years ago, is a matter of wonder. For the customary, approved notions of the possibilities of reality do not take care of that problem of dimension and representation that is within the everyday fact of a person's having within himself as he walks a picture of a lake, or a mountain, or a railroad. Were the idea of common wonder more accepted there would not be such a pained, dismissing attitude towards dreams. We must take a wider, deeper, more adventurous, yet more matter-of-fact standpoint as to mind itself.

     At the present time in America, wonder and matter-of-fact live on two sides of the railroad. A person behaves with groomed propriety outwardly; but in his bed, or in revery, or in just thinking to himself, there is another world. And these two worlds are seen as neighbors who need never meet. Imagination and aesthetics make for the meeting of wonder and matter-of-fact and therefore if we do not respect imagination and aesthetics consciously, we are permitting the seeds of personality disjunction to operate.

     For example, there is Julius Harris, a worker for the federal post office. He is a methodical servant of our government in the post office of Troy, New York. He married early and he has no good, evident reason for leaving his wife. He is a respected member of the post office force of his city. He "kids along" with his fellow workers and sometimes with the patrons of his post office. He has set for himself a notion of social propriety. He likes to put on a dignified front in every situation. He wishes he could have more money, but he feels himself secure. Four years ago Mr. Harris found himself going without sleep for a whole night. But he appeared at work promptly and went about his business. However, the sleepless nights occurred more often. His wife noticed them but he jestingly said: "I guess it is because I know my work too well and really don't have enough to do. I have more energy, maybe, than I can use." When he couldn't sleep, Harris, at times, would start writing. He has had thoughts of writing for many years. He has written some poems and short stories and has studied books on the art of writing. He is quite aware that there is a world of imagination and art.

     Despite all the writing that Julius Harris has done, there are some thoughts in himself that he has never looked at. When he was a child he imagined that he was a king of a large island in the Pacific and that whenever he needed them he could summon people from a country nearby and order them to do as he pleased. But if he became tired of them, he could dismiss them to the country where they belonged, just like that. He also imagined quite often that every person in the world was dead; only he was alive. Furthermore, despite the fact that on the whole he has been a meek and faithful husband, he has imagined strange places where he would be alone with the most beautiful women in the world, and in any number. He has imagined invisible penthouses where the most prominently alluring females of the universe were at his beck to do what he wanted with. These internal mental procedures of Julius Harris have gone on for many years. They have been so common that he has not even noticed them. When he writes stories, he sees to it that he does not write about himself. He writes about life in Florida, which he once visited; and life in New York, usually from a satirical and comic point of view. And he has gone in for a strange kind of allegory. He wouldn't think of writing about the post office for anything. He is fond of telling jokes and can be neatly cynical. However, the insomnia of Julius Harris is growing worse.

     Imagination, like some other things, begins at home. It is a picture of the world and like the world it must have its immediacy and its distance. It is not something which can be used to make up for the reluctances and deficiencies of self; it must start with the self. But for imagination to start with the self, that self must be seen as of a piece with other things; and Julius Harris is afraid to let imagination implicate himself . There is a life of marriage and post office which he is aware of; there is a life in himself and elsewhere which he doesn't want to be aware of. Not wanting to be aware of this life in himself, he makes up for it by manipulating pictures that rise from himself, but do not really show it. His insomnia comes from the fact that the evolving life in himself is at odds with that which he chooses to see as what concerns him. He acts as a friend to people and as a sensible hail-fellow-well-met. But there is a life going on day by day which he has put aside. There is disjunction in the imagination of Julius Harris, and this disjunction has made for his insomnia.

     Imagination has fear in it, but it has also the most rapturous desire and the most unlimited hopes. In all hope and fear there is imagination because both hope and fear are pictures of possibilities; and wherever there is a picture of possibility there is the mind molding the world to its purpose.

     The mind is in an unremitting, inevitable career towards adequacy. Art and imagination are, like a human self, a matter of including, selecting and shaping. The difference between the imagination of art and the imagination of everyday life is that where in art imagination serves to show the self by showing the world, imagination in "life" is used to make the self comfortable, without necessarily showing it. There is a use of symbol in art which is meant to illuminate and widen the meaning of objects; but symbols, other than accurately artistic symbols, may be used to present yet conceal the ideas affecting a self. The unconscious in art is not frustrated or stunted; it is not reluctantly put into action; it is not a means of concealment. It is often so in "life."

     For example, Henry Hillard at one time failed to make the statement that would have helped a friend in an emergency. Had he done so Hillard's position in life might have become a little less respectable and comfortable; besides he was jealous of this friend and did not want to please him. When Hillard failed to show courage and fairness towards a person he knew, he thought outwardly: "Well, why should I take a risk for a fellow like that? I have enough trouble taking care of my wife and children, let alone yours truly." But the lukewarm, if not treacherous, friend found himself counting the number of cars that passed a certain point in the afternoon. For some reason he could not go back to lunch, but had to stand at a corner and count just how many motor vehicles went by. He looked at his watch, saw it was 2:40 P.M., and rushed headlong to his office. He found himself, though, at other times compelled to count cars; and once he felt an odd impulse to count stairs. Now Hillard's mind had gone through a kind of poetic simile. The poet welcomes a simile, even though he finds himself driven to accept it, but he sees the simile as of himself. He does not look upon it as a weird intruder into the territory of a planned life. Hillard had avoided details and a fair telling of something in which he was implicated; he chose to make it something foreign and unrelated to him; he let it drift because it would disturb him. Yet the disturbance continued though our self-justifying American lawyer did not see himself as worse than other people when he did not go out of his way to tell the facts which would have helped a man he had known for a long time. Mr. Hillard hardly saw himself as a "poet." But, not being able to face the demands of his unconscious as to a certain situation, he went "poetically" through a painful symbol of atonement in outline. His unconscious seized upon the "simile" between clearly presenting details about a happening without murkily dismissing them and going through the one by one counting of moving cars.

     A good many "counting compulsions" are a kind of simile-substitute for something we cannot see directly or where it starts. The imagination of Mr. Hillard was fearful. He was not wholly interested in presenting the world clearly and originally and truly; he was interested in being comfortable, but there was more than the desire to be comfortable in an ordinary sense. For sometimes we are only comfortable when we have punished ourselves. This means that Mr. Hillard's imagination was an evasive mingling of the desire to enjoy comfort at the cost of another, and the desire to punish himself for that enjoyment. It was a neurotic compulsion but, as all neurotic compulsions have, there was imagination to it. Had the imagination included both conscious and unconscious, motive and procedure, object and shape, situation and self, it would have been aesthetic imagination. It would not have been painful; it would not have been unhealthy.

     Imagination, where it is not corrupt, never arises from failure or frustration. Accurate imagination is courage and sight and joy. The imagination that is fond of detours, given to evasion, and is bent on concealing as much as illuminating, is something other than creative procedure.

     A notion has been fostered by Freud and others that art is a substitute for an inability to act; that creation is the resort of the sexually frustrated. This notion, in itself, is enough to make one suspicious of the comprehensive insight of Freud or anyone else advocating it. In the same way as logic may be used by the political blusterer or by the charlatan, or by the adroit defender of doctrines personally agreeable, so imagination can be used for skulking, or ignoble, or weak purposes. Yet it is certainly unwise to attack logic because the appearance of logic has been given by the adroitly maneuvering. In the same way, imagination should not be judged by its corrupt mishandling.

     Freud does not see that imagination which is complete is already courage. As I have pointed out, imagination, like knowledge, is always a matter of object and person. Since to use imagination on the world implies a comprehensive love for the data that the world presents, there is really no evasion of reality in the imaginative process. When a mind arranges the facts which the world presents to it, it does not mean that this mind is fleeing from these facts. To make creation the same as escape is one of the most harmful things that can be done. It is incumbent on every student of mind to distinguish between the imagination of a Defoe in Robinson Crusoe, or of a Thackeray in Vanity Fair, or of a Bennett in The Old Wives' Tale, or of a Browning in The Ring and the Book, and the "imagination" that is carelessly used to cover every aberration from factual perception. Further, in order to understand that incomplete, impure imagination which we may see in the mentally distressed, we must first see where it is not corrupt. That again means a respect for, and a study of, aesthetics.

     All neuroticism or insanity has in it incomplete or corrupt imagination. I have mentioned the instance of Mr. Hillard who used an unwilling imagination in such a way as to make cars objects which had to be counted. There is Luther Davison who quite often sees the eyes of persons about him staring fiercely and accusingly. Now Luther has a deep sense of having done something wrong. He cannot, nor does he wish to, see what that something wrong is. He cannot see the thing symbolized by his distressed vision. Could he see that he hates or has a contempt for people and that something in him is telling him that he is guilty in doing so, then the compulsory symbol which is the accusing eyes of the people he meets, would not be necessary. The imagination of Luther Davison arises from an unwillingness to see, not from a willingness. Could he accept symbol and thing symbolized, then there would be a mingling of unconscious and will. And where unconscious and will are at one, the premises of art are present.

     We have pictures which are pictures not so much of what we want to see as of what we don't want to see. We go through imaginative painful rituals called compulsions, not so much because we wish to imagine truly—which would mean to see truly, but because we do not wish to imagine so. These pictures or obsessions, and these compulsions are compromise junctions of a troubled and dim self with an unwillingly and partially seen world. For example, in the picture which a mother may have of a child lost or run over or injured, there is the imaginative substitute, and the punishing substitute, for the deep feeling which the mother has that the child is not a person in its own right and that if it exists at all, it exists as an annex of herself. The mother has the guilt feeling arising from the fact that she does not wish to see her child as an outside object. She punishes herself and makes up for the unwillingness to see her child wholly, by thinking of the child as dead or lost. This is imagination but it is the imagination of running off. The two parts of the imaginative process, the symbol and what is symbolized, are disjoined. They act together, but there is an unwillingness to see them together. Another example of compulsive imagination is to be seen in the young lady who cannot resist immediately removing a bit of paper that may have fallen on a table, or a speck of dust that she sees on furniture. She must be cleaning her home unremittingly; she cannot stand a greyish appearance on a white or polished surface. She is atoning imaginatively and somewhat painfully, for the unwillingness to show, reveal, or purge herself.

     I have used the word "symbol" quite often in relation to the general meaning and activity of imagination. The word itself was in rich existence before psychoanalysis or even current psychiatry. It is always well, when a word is used in a new field, to make its new meaning harmonize, if possible, with the meaning it had in the past. There has been a large to-do about symbols in contemporary mental therapy. But, as elsewhere, the word has been given too narrow a meaning. Everything can be a symbol. When a symbol is used by a person there are three factors in it:

      1. Something bound up with the person's particular existence; 
      2. An intermediate something which is coordinated with the person's particular outlook;
      3. The world itself, which somewhere is present in every instance of a symbol. 

      A symbol everywhere is something used to stand for something else. The purpose of a symbol may be various. We may use a symbol to heighten the meaning of the thing symbolized, we may use it as a substitute for the thing symbolized, and we may use it to conceal the thing symbolized. By the ailing mind a symbol is used, it is true, as a thing standing for something else, but also as a means of concealing that for which it stands.

     What does it mean when it is said that a symbol stands for reality as a whole? It means that every thing, including a thing used as a symbol, in some way or other, is representative of the possibilities of reality as a whole. For example, if a person fears suddenly that he is going to be drowned, just what does the drowning symbolize? Is it a hidden desire for sex, as some have said? But is sex here the final reality to which the symbol points? Now, by none of those who have dealt with sex as a basic and constant and ramified drive in the human ego, have I yet seen sex called The Ultimate Reality. Is it possible that sex itself is a symbol? I think it is. Well!—Could the fear of drowning be a symbol of something else besides sex—even though that symbol, it is true, could include it? Is it not likely that the person who had this fearful vision was expressing a relation to something larger than bodily junction as such? Cannot the unconscious imaginatively and terrifiedly present through a symbol, a picture of a personality in relation to the whole universe? What hinders the unconscious, which after all was caused by the universe in its entirety, from presenting in outline some feeling about that universe? Yes, if it is possible for two eyes to see an outline of the sun, why cannot the eyes of the unconscious perceive in outline existence as a whole?

     When, then, is imagination a beautiful and orderly and sound thing? If it is to be orderly, it must have what all order has; it must have unity and detail which serve each other. Further, of course, it must be based on fact. In order, however, for imagination to be based on fact, there must be a belief that fact is free; that knowledge is on one's side; that reality is a companion not a rival.


Copyright © 1981 by Definition Press


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