Lesson 27 Imagination and the Imaginary
No culture has, as ours, so praised the imagination. Advertising and the media are not only soliciting the imagination, but are also constantly displaying images of a tantalizing elsewhere. Going away to the elsewhere of the imaginary is even our only manner to feel free. It is giving to ourselves another world than the real one. We have all the technical means to do so. Glory be therefore to the imagination because it has become the symbol of freedom: above everything else we claim a right to dream! Yet what lies behind this exaltation? Imagination or the imaginary?
What is the difference between imagination and the imaginary? What is the main work of the imagination? Is it to connect us to another possible world or is it above all to enable us to leave this one in order to find satisfaction elsewhere? If the fantasies of the imagination borrow their content from reality in order to reconstruct it in response to fantasies and desires, then imagination is only copying. It combines images to create pictures that imitate things in nature, while representing nothing real or existing. In this case imagination is neither as rich nor as free as one may wish to believe. But is it not excessive to say that the imaginary is only a by-product of perception? Let us therefore consider this simple question: what is imagination?
A. Imagination, perception, souvenir and concept.
Imagination, like perception, constitute modalities of consciousness, forms of intentionality. However, to be aware of an image is not at all the same thing as to be aware of something at the heart of a perception; and this intentionality should also be distinguished from those of souvenir and of judgement. To begin with we could mark the conceptual differences between image, concept, perception and souvenir.
The gap between imagination and perception is very clear, they are even opposed forms of consciousness. The more acute my perception, the more attentive, vigilant, lucid it is, and the less I am then imagining. To perceive is to be present here and now, to stay with the perception, in this room where I am, by this open window. The more I allow myself to be carried away by imagination, the less I perceive the real world, in such a way that the image-consciousness chases away the perception-consciousness and vice-versa. The image-consciousness does only develop by temporarily dismissing the World of vigilance, without consciousness for this reason falling into the turpitude of sleep. Vigilance supposes an awareness of things and an awareness of the World, a characteristic tension that calls for watchfulness. This tension of watchfulness is precisely the one that must be relaxed for me to escape and to give myself entirely to images. On the one hand there is thus reality and all its exactions, on the other hand there is the unreal and all its charm; in other words: consciousness that is vigilant, and the unconscious tending towards dreams.
A comparison with souvenirs will immediately put us at risk of a possible confusion. If for instance I call up in my mind my grand-mother’s house in Brittany where I spent part of my childhood, there are of course images coming back to me, but these all have a particular shade, they are more exactly souvenirs. What makes images souvenirs is the fact that they are marked by time and their dimension is the past. I see once more a house not far from the small town, and places such as a pebbled beach. I might perhaps recall the colour of the blinds of the house. That is a complex image, but it is also a souvenir. In order to find an image manifesting as such, one would have to move away from the perspective of time. The souvenir is defined as someone becoming aware of the past, while an image does not take us out of the present: rather the image is timeless. The souvenir takes place in duration. An image is not necessarily a souvenir, but conversely in all souvenirs there are images. Similarly in all images there is an element of sensory perception, but it has been borrowed from perception and then transformed. I may very well form the image of a winged horse without necessarily evoking this particular horse I once saw running in a field. What enables me to form the image is in a sense less intimate than a souvenir, it is a kind of knowledge of forms less time-dependent than souvenirs. The emotional shade of a souvenir is very strong: I have the impression to recover, through images, my past, to recover myself. In a souvenir the essential thing is the relation of my consciousness to the past, and therein the image plays only the part of an intermediary. In my connection to the imaginary the image is the direct object. An image is produced, invented, it is a creation of the mind, it is not only a reproduction of what the mind has already seen. Memory is directed to the past and not at the image as such, and this justifies the distinction of these two faculties. In the imagination the image is not an intermediary, it is the goal of the intentionality as such. When consciousness loses hold of perception and unfolds with the aid of images, then it becomes all image and delights in its imaginary productions.
It would seem then that the image is much more impersonal than the souvenir, which would appear to relate it to the concept, the object of the acts of judgements. Nevertheless we all know that an image is not a concept, even if it is thought by means of concepts. When I imagine something like a winged horse I think it using the concept of horse and that of wing. The image of the house logically summons the concept of a lodgement, that of window, door, roof, façade and so on. Yet an image is not the same as a concept. The concept is by nature abstract while an image is always concrete. The concept is a genre, an abstract category. The concept of a dog is a general category that brings together extremely diverse species and individualities. The concept supposes language, words in which to express it. When I imagine a dog I cannot imagine an idea, I imagine this or that particular dog, a dachshund, a German sheepdog, an Irish setter etc… I am in a position similar to that of perception which is also concerned with things perceived as particulars. I don’t see “a tree”, I see this particular tree that I can identify as a fir-tree. Similarly the image I have in my head is that of a circle, an animal, a house, a fairy. In some sort of sketch however we realise an intermediate between the concept and concrete image. A sketch simplifies the idea and renders it concrete, but in not very detailed a manner. This for instance may be taken to be the sketch of a man.
I can identify what corresponds to the definition of a man by recognising some of its attributes: two legs, two arms, an upright posture, a trunk, a head. It is thanks to the concept that I can identify this image.
Mathematical entities are similarly first thought by the mind before they can be represented in the imagination.
A line is not the line, by definition it ought to have neither thickness nor end
Even a poorly drawn triangle is still a sketch of the concept of triangle
There is however an essential difference between what I imagine and what I conceive. It may sometimes be possible for us to conceive of a thing without being able to imagine it. Descartes gives the example of the thousand-sided polygon. “If I want to think of a chiliogone, I correctly conceive that it is a figure composed of thousand sides, and this as easily as I conceive of the triangle as being a figure composed of three sides only, but I am unable to imagine the thousand sides of the chiliogone like I imagine the three sides of the triangle.” This is a difficulty we have encountered for instance with the theory of relativity: from the point of view of the concept the idea may well be clear, but the imagination cannot always follow because it would take it too far from its accustomed points of reference. Contrarily to what is commonly believed, the power of the imagination is not always above the power of conception of the intellect. Imaginative thinking sometimes has difficulties representing what the understanding conceives of. In addition as regards abstract matters the outline given by the imagination is never more than a support to thought and not its aim. This may be helpful, particularly pedagogically, but that is all. One may very well do without it when it is possible to grasp the idea without intermediary.
To sum up: image, souvenir and concept have common aspects. The most characteristic is the fact that in any case they all relate to an object that is absent. The souvenir relates to a past that is no more. The concept develops on a level that exceeds any particular perception and refers to a genre. The image too refers to what is not there, but it confers to it a pseudo-presence. A souvenir is a pale copy of reality while imagination appears to recreate reality. Imagination is creative, the souvenir owes its life to a Duration that has been experienced and that is not a present creation.
B. Consciousness and the Imaginary.
It is this form of consciousness made of pseudo-presence that we must examine. In what sense is an image a form of consciousness? The perception of cars that drive by in the street is also a form of consciousness, but it is a capture of reality in the sense of the World of vigilance in my field of consciousness. I am connected to reality present here and now through the window of perception. In this manner it is existence that is given to my vision. However when imagination enters into account then I turn away from what is there and give myself up to images. I give myself an unreal object, an absent object, but that is, as in perception, particular and concrete.
1. How is this possible? One may say of the image that it is homologous on the mode of reference to something unreal to what in perception is on the mode of reference to something real. The image is the mode of consciousness through which an object that consciousness is aiming at is apprehended as a particular that is unreal or absent. The perception is a donation of presence, the imagination is a donation of absence. This formula may be strange but it is very clear from the point of view of experience. In perception I give myself the world as present, in the imagination I depart from this presence and rÊtreat into myself. Consequently I make myself absent for everybody else: “are you dreaming?” one asks me. This means that I give myself the absence as a particular mode of consciousness, which does not mean a consciousness that is completely empty, but one reduced to the play of the imagination, a form of unconsciousness, a weakened form of vigilance.
When my consciousness begins to dream open-eyed then it stops being vigilant; I drift off into a dream through this intermediate state that is the daydream. In fact the dream, as a state of consciousness, is the prototype of the work of the imagination. The daydream constitutes an intermediate state, a reintroduction of dreamlike unconsciousness into waking state. In order to correctly understand what the imagination is we have to start off considering the dreaming state; in order to understand correctly what perception is we have to start with the waking state. A dream typically is a way the subject finds of losing himself in images through maintaining for a while a state of unconsciousness that does not suppress his thoughts (then he would fall into deep sleep). The chaotic procession of the dream, its capacity to serve the realisation of all desires, its lack of respect for the laws of reality, in particular as regards the consistency of objects, causation, all these characteristics show us that the structure of reality such as it is construed in the waking state is destroyed to make place for something unreal put in place by the imaginary. A dream is a projection in the field of the imaginary and the model of a well-construed illusion. The unreal is not a void. The unreal has a pseudo-existence as image for the consciousness that posits it as its object. According to the model of intentionality of vigilance one cannot be conscious of “nothing”, awareness is awareness-of-something. In dreams consciousness has become, not a consciousness of perceptible things, but a consciousness of images. The image is a “something” for the consciousness, but a something that is not intertwined with the fabric of the world in the waking state. When the subject emerges out of a bad dream he things “phew, it was just a dream”! and recovers his foothold inside the consistence of the world of the waking state. He recovers his foothold in reality by letting go of an illusion, by ending the hallucination of a dream.
We find a similar work of consciousness in the waking state when we turn away from the perceived in favour of the imagined and allow ourselves to slip into a daydream. We can remain in this state of semi-consciousness in which we call for images, at risk of suddenly finding ourselves dreaming open-eyed. There is an image-creating activity, an intentionality of a very particular kind that is at work in the imagination, one different from that developed in perception. What is perceived possesses a richness that I cannot grasp in its entirety. It gets richer for every detailed sketch in which the object presents itself to me. An image possesses nothing of the sort. The image gives itself at once and this in its essential poverty, Sartre says. Between the tree I perceive and the tree I imagine there is all the difference between true observation and quasi-observation. The image is not empty with respect to perception, it corresponds to another manner in which consciousness relates to an object.
The image contains within itself an intentionality that is the power of the unreal. But the power of the unreal means also the power to derealise and therefore also to negate. When for example I find myself on the terrace of a café waiting for Pierre, my waiting, if weighing on my consciousness, will very quickly make me move away from perception. What do these people, theses walls, this waitress smiling at me, these things I detect in the ceiling matter to me? Pierre is not here! I am no longer there for that world. My mind is not turned towards the world, it is turned towards a world, the world-without-my-friend. The passage into the imaginary is spontaneous. I think of him, I imagine a world with my friend there and as a result I cross out the actuality of the real world. In a way I cannot say that his image is “in” my consciousness; rather it is my consciousness that relates to him as to someone that is not there. My imaging consciousness wholly turns itself into an image through its intentional aiming at a concrete absent being. Consequently, in Sartre’s wording, the imaging consciousness is a nihilation of the object. Only what is there is given to perception, only what is there is a possible object of perception, what is absent is not perceptible. This nothingness is the representation of the absence of what is expected. The image-consciousness must, in order to develop, nihilate the perceived world and be dissolved into a world of images. If I am waiting for Pierre and that my mind is altogether given to relating to his image, then the image-consciousness of Pierre entails in return the erasure of the World around me. To enable me to imagine only it is necessary that perception disappear, I must be able to forget to an extent such that I no longer see the world around me. The image corresponds to an absence of being and aiming for it will take place within the setting of a perceived existent, but that recedes in the background, while the image appears upfront… The world is for me a-world-without-my-friend. It is marked by my own lack, my image is a want of the being-present of my friend and all the world around me does is reveal this void. It is for this reason that the imaging consciousness nihilates the perceived object and the whole world. It no longer wants to learn or discover anything about reality, it wants to give itself immediately a pseudo-real in the form of an image. Since my consciousness cannot treat the perceived world as it pleases, it must negate itself as vigilance and rÊtreat into its own representation. For the imagination to fly away from the world of vigilance the mind needs only a pretext, an object of fascination and therefore a bare minimum of matter borrowed from perception. This minimum is what Sartre calls an analogon: a photo, an ancient object, strange figures in the clouds and consciousness takes off into the imaginary realm. A painting on the wall, my attention is arrested, my thought escapes and I find myself elsewhere.
Hence the image is a particular manner of thinking which also implies a manner of being in the world on the mode of escape: being elsewhere, going beyond, dreaming and so on… We find the unreal so charming that we prefer it to reality, which is tantamount to refusing reality. Positioned inside a particular state, a daze that cuts one off vigilance, the mind seems to be able to produce its own objects, instead of discovering them among the things it perceives. The mind carries the imaginary within itself. This does not mean that the mind would be some kind of object, some recipient containing images. More exactly it is consciousness that becomes imaging consciousness, in the same way as it can be perceiving consciousness. Consciousness is its own content. When I start imagining Hell and Paradise I am aware of imagining them, I am not seeing them. At most one could say that I am “visualising” them, which does not mean seeing them. I represent to myself a world that is absent. There can therefore not be any objective description of the imaginary, unlike the perceived world of which there can be such a description.
2. The power of the unreal enables me to represent to myself the realisation of all my desires and fantasies. The unreal is always the imagining of the other and otherwise. The imagination is not content with copying reality because it negates it in favour of something else. Why this need to imagine things to be other and otherwise, if not because reality seems to us to be unsatisfactory and that we feel the need to compensate for our lack of satisfaction?
Freud’s analysis develops in just this direction. The neuropath finds himself in constant conflict with reality. He must join the principle of pleasure, which demands that he satisfy his desires, to the principle of reality which demands that he remain adapted to the norms of the surrounding social order and its norms. The result is a state of constant frustration which leads the neurotic man to give himself satisfaction in the margins of the real world, in the imaginary, to dream the life that he is incapable of living. Since drives are unconscious the result according to Freud is that the dynamism of the imaginary is unconscious too. Imagination is there to give satisfaction to desires at another level than that of reality and this it does in dreams as much as in daydreams. The productions of the imaginary are compromises in agreement with reality in order to satisfy unconscious drives while not at odds with the reality principle. According to Freud the artist rÊtreats from an unsatisfactory reality in order to seek refuge in the imaginary. His creations are the result of unconscious desires, but the difference between the neuropath and the artist is that the artist succeeds in returning to reality in his creation, which the neuropath fails to do, and is therefore condemned to live inside an unfulfilled fantasy.
This analysis accounts very well for the idea of compensation. Yet resorting to an imaginary experience is not only negative, it can also be constructive. Without going so far as to speak of unconscious drives at work in the imaginary, we may at least notice that the productions of the imaginary have a particular effect on the conscious subject. The child, for instance, finds it hard to accept reality when it makes it suffer. Fairy tales enable it to image the most sensitive scenes, such as the departure of its mother, through showing that after a difficult moment there is always a happy ending. The tale does not merely project consciousness into the imaginary, or satisfy a need to escape, it enables an identification, a stage projection of life. The identification of the little girl with the princess, that of the little boy with the knight are structuring for the one as well as for the other. It is through this identification that anxieties are overcome that at this age intelligence cannot yet deal with. Tales are an aid to reconcile with oneself, a complete acceptation of reality. For the child to accept reality is to insert events inside a story. The tale enables the child to look upon the temporality of existence as that of a story in which everything that happens does so only in passing, in which situations may be reversed, in which the unforeseen is present on every page. The tale is in the image of a river, alive with its source, its streams, its waves and its ebbing out into the ocean. It symbolises birth, the stages of life, the growth of consciousness, the attaining of an ideal, victory of good over evil, as well as overcoming the most difficult circumstances of life and recovering peace. The hero is the journeying soul, the soul triumphant in adversity.
C. The Field of the Imaginary.
What then is the imaginary? A complex level of consciousness in which the mind gives itself to unreality. The unreal is neither the carbon copy of the real, its pleasant other side, nor the best or worst. The imaginary is the proper place of images, fantasia, the realm of concrete forms that the mind can construe. According to the anthropologist G. Durand the imaginary is a museum of all images, be they past, possible, produced or to be produced. The question is then to know where these forms may be exhausted.
It is possible to distinguish two forms of the imaginary, corresponding to an individual aspect and a collective aspect.
1. The individual imaginary is the repertoire of forms connected to the desires and aspirations of individual consciousness. It belongs to the ego. As a creation of consciousness it has two aspects. The creation of forms by the imagination may be interpreted using a distinction. Kant says: “Insofar as imagination is spontaneity, I call the imagination producing and I thereby distinguish it from the imagination that is reproducing” a) either as a kind of reproduction of perception. That is what one calls reproductive imagination, which gives rise to the wandering daydream from a motive, that is from the image of an object provisionally absent. We have all observed how dreams feed on elements from the day before that they distort at their leisure. B) Or a pure creation of the mind in which case one will speak of creative imagination. In addition the object that the image is forms a system together with other images in such a way that the imaginary spontaneously builds up as another world as opposed to the real world.
At the heart of the imaginary the image never exists as a simple fragment detached from the whole, it only exists through the whole it forms together with other images. It is only through thinking that we can fragment it. The image is not just a discoloured fragment of memory. If the imagination by definition was only reproductive, then it would only be a form of memory. Just as well not to call it by any particular name. On the contrary if it is effectively capable of elaborating new forms, original images, and to constitute a world, then from where does it get its inspiration? Certainly not from memory. The word “image” is partly ambiguous. One says of the reflection in the mirror that is only our image. But in another meaning, in the work of the writer, in the fairy tale or legend for instance, the image is not a reflection, it is an element of the “imaginary” world. The mind that is imagining creates, weaves a world. It does not stick photographs together borrowed from perception. And never mind how we may morally judge this creation. The imaginary world may be revered by all of us as one above the real world, marvellous, divine, filled with idols, or models or what Jung calls archetypes. It may also be disparaged as a delirious world of fantasies, an illusory and deceptive world that one creates in order to compensate. Leaving aside moral criticisms in order to examine the imaginary realm it would seem that at its depth the mind possesses a hidden and mysterious talent for creating forms. The mind that gives itself to the imaginary gives itself a door on the unreal, which at once implies two quests: that to compensate for unfulfilled desires and the projection of a desire, the elevation towards the ideal. The imaginary can draw its elements from what is sub-rational in us: the realm of the unconscious, of past traumas. But is may also feed on a supra-rational inspiration. This is what happens in the most inspired poetry. It also happens in the elaborations of Utopia that proposes a representation of the ideal society in which men would live in perfect agreement.
2. By collective imaginary we understand the repertoire of forms that feed human cultures. In Totem and Taboo Freud stated the hypothesis of a collective unconscious at the source of collective representations. The work of C. G. Jung is famous for having deciphered the symbols at work in the collective imagination of humanity. One of the most innovating aspects of Jung’s analytical psychology is the light shed on popular tales, ancient legends, of all the imaginary carried by popular culture.
Another example is that of the myth. All societies have foundation myths. We may say with Jung that the collective unconscious carries this memory of humanity within itself and it re-emerges in the form of myths in our culture. The myth presents symbolic relations that are essential for us to situate ourselves inside the universe. Jung attempted to explore the grammar of the collective unconscious. He gave a theory of the collective unconscious. Jung supposes that the unconscious feeds on some sort of collective inheritance of imaginary archetypes, common to all humanity. Thus the figure of the anima is the feminine aspect of the soul, animus, the masculine aspect. The dragon represents the unconscious forces of that one must defeat. These archetypes are found in all cultures. According to Jung myths use symbols that occur in all cultures, while adopting a specific form in each of them.
Our post-modern society does of course produce its own myths too. The promethean myth of man’s challenge of destiny, of the victory against nature reappears in the 17th century in the conquering ambitions of Technique. It is there too at the end of the 19th century and is embodied in people like Gustave Eiffel, Pasteur or in fictive characters like Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. The whole of modernity is built around the myth of progress that we also find in Condorcet and also in the hopes of the Enlightenment. Out post-modern times, while turning away from political ideologies and while unable to identify with the myth of technical progress, have all the same construed their own mythology. They celebrate the virtual revolution in the same way as the ’68 generation celebrated and believed in a real revolution via the class struggle. They idolize the freedom of the imaginary as a power to experience everything through synthetic images. It idolizes the means of communication, the virtual conviviality, the possibility to communicate instantly with anyone on the planet via Internet, to weave a virtual fabric (the myth of the virtual village), to abolish the borders of nations with information and so on. The UFO-literature fashion recovers and renews an old myth, that of fabulous people and the imaginary associated with otherness. The success of TV series dealing with the paranormal nourishes a collective imaginary of the unknown and the elsewhere. In this area of the mental constructions of the imaginary, our dreams resemble the dreams of conquest of the Spanish and Portuguese who went to look for a new world, dreaming of unknown lands and strange worlds. Why this need of the collective imagination? For G. Durand the imaginary is an antidote to fear and in particular to the fear of death. Myths are a tonic against anxiety. Bergson analysed this very well in his last work, The Two Sources of Morals and Religion. He calls fantasizing function the ability of the mind to produce religious myths, an ability that shelters the individual intelligence against the inevitable character of death. Myths are an insurance against the depression that rationality would result in were it on its own. They give meaning.
3. The mind cannot be limited to the rational order, to the concept. In us the irrational is constantly at work, projecting its own constructions. The imaginary liberates the irrational side of human nature. This explains why we are so charmed by fairy tales, by the fantastic and the marvellous. How would we otherwise explain the magic attraction of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? From the first pages the reader enters into a world that is complete, a world with its language, characters and mythology; a world that is involved in a drama grappling with good and evil. Tolkien carries us away inside his imaginary universe, to a place and above all to a climate. All along the quest we experience extreme tension, a threat behind every rock, every flying bird, while the necessity to end the battle against evil grows ever more urgent. The reader cannot but identify with the heroes and if he succeeds in immersing himself into this world this means necessarily that Tolkien’s imaginary world is not just that of the individual Tolkien. It touches upon an unconscious architecture, primitive archetypes found in each and everyone. Once we have experienced the reading we can understand how it comes that a work such as The Lord of the Rings has been the starting point for a whole new genre of literature, the heroic fantasy the productions of which are rarely on par with their model. What is remarkable is the power of inspiration of this text, a power that the reader feels. This example makes it clear that the frontier between individual imaginary and collective imaginary does not really exist.
There certainly is unfolding of the creative intelligence in the imaginary that gives the mind a particular satisfaction, both as a creation and as forms of perception on the imaginary level. This is why we find a joy in Poetry that scientific knowledge cannot give us. This is also why using our intellect and cultivating our imagination are different aspects of culture. A man without imagination has a very dull mind. In this respect Baudelaire was right to praise the imagination for being the highest faculty of the mind. In the words of Raymond Ruyer, we need psychic food as much as we need intellectual food. The psychic food does not replace intellectual food or vice-versa. The artist and to a certain extent the inventor are those who can draw from the well of the dynamism of the imaginary, because they play at the level of creative intelligence, while ordinary mortals generally take the imaginary to be a mere refuge from life’s disappointments and from boredom. The imaginary allows the intelligence to unfold on a plane that is not that of reality, yet this also means that in a way, the imaginary may reach a depth that cannot be discovered in reality as perceived by the senses. Thus the initiatory tale, while on the path of the imaginary, at the same time confronts the mind with the Mystery of the real. This is what the initiatory narratives of the Yoga Vashistha, in which metaphysical problems are treated from the point of view of stories or initiatory tales. In the story of Lavana for instance the king sees a magician enter his court who projects him into a fantasy, an extraordinary tale that lasts for about an hour. Emerging from the story the king tells his courtesans what he has seen. But shortly afterwards he must face up to a strange situation: what he thought he had been dreaming actually occurred somewhere in a land not for from his own kingdom. Whence the following dilemma harassing the king: did he genuinely experience these events? Here the tale makes the reader question the status of events and their occurrence. It raises the problem of the individual’s destiny in its relation to the identity of the subject. It makes us think about the paradox of the passing of time. The initiatory tale does not confine itself to being a sort of poetic escape from reality. It may well make a detour by the imagination, but it is concerned with Reality.
To imagine is much more than changing the form of the real world, it is representing another world. The richness of the imagination is not just borrowed from perception. It always goes beyond what is perceived. Imagination sometimes has the capacity to prospect what is not yet and to represent it. Literature shows us this with depth. Many literary works have been foreseeing. The imagination of Jules Verne is stunning for its capacity to anticipate. Huxley’s Brave New World saw with much depth what might occur in a post-modern technocratic society.
Thus the imaginary is surely not reality but this does not mean that it is sheer evasion. Within the imaginary a depth is projected that the intellect is not wholly able to conceptualise. The prospective power of the imagination maybe enables it to approach reality in a more plentiful way than do concepts.
dialogue : questions and answers
Home © Philosophy and spirituality, 2004, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarinna Lamm