The Importance of Imagination, Part 7

NickOfTime

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

Speculative Fantasy and Primary Imagination

The simple fantasy is the power to envision realities that we have never encountered. The speculative fantasy is the power to envision things that never were and never will be. The speculative fantasy works in much the same way as the simple fantasy, i.e., by combining elements that are already present in the memory. By combining these elements, the mind creates new arrangements that exist nowhere outside of the fantasy itself.

Suppose we combine the following elements: body of a serpent, wings of a bat, legs and head of a lizard, size of a tree trunk. The result, of course, is a dragon. If we further combine the elements of fire and breath, we end up with a fire-breathing dragon, which is the best kind. Even if there are no dragons in the real world, we have no trouble imagining one.

The Bible sometimes requires us to employ the speculative fantasy. For example, Jotham’s fable in the book of Judges has trees meeting to elect a king. They reason, speak, and hold a council. This fable clearly combines elements that never occur together in the real world.

We have discussed two classifications of fantasy: simple and speculative. Many critics have seen fantasy as inferior to other forms of imagination. Indeed, some classify fantasy as a separate thing from imagination altogether. Some even believe that fantasy is detrimental.

What are their reasons? One is that fantasy creates nothing new, but simply recombines elements from memory. Another is that fantasy is sometimes used as a mechanism to escape reality, and therefore does not enlarge our understanding of the world.

My response is that we are incapable of living without fantasy. Without fantasy we would not be able to recognize things that we had not previously encountered. Furthermore, fantasy does not have to stand alone. It can provide the platform upon which other types of imagination are able to operate.

The more that we explore the fantastic, the more personal, perspectival, and even idiosyncratic our imaginings become. Memory already preserves a perspective. The further one moves from actual memory into fantasy, the more the fantasy is likely to bear the stamp of a unique imagination.

For example, if you imagine a dragon, it will not be exactly like the dragon that I imagine. Yours may be larger or smaller, it may be red or gold or green, its wings may be more or less pronounced, it may or may not have horns, and it may be an intelligent, sensitive creature or a stupidly instinctual brute.

We can attempt to explain our fantasies to one another. If we are successful, we may evoke in another mind an image that approximates the one that we ourselves entertain. We do so because we find something useful or enjoyable about the image that we are imagining. Before this attempt can be called art, however, another step must intervene. That step is the primary imagination.

Coleridge distinguished the fancy (fantasy) from the imagination, relegating the fancy to a lower position. He also divided the imagination itself into two powers. These he labeled primary and secondary. Coleridge’s description of these powers is notoriously difficult. Nevertheless, I think that the distinction can be maintained, and it is a useful one.

Primary imagination begins with perception. (For Coleridge, this apparently meant a perceiving of something in the real world, but I think that a fantasy can also serve as the object of perception for the primary imagination.) Earlier, we saw that memories and even perceptions of the same objects would vary from person to person. Each person sees the object somewhat differently, and therefore each person remembers it differently. That is, every perception includes some element of interpretation. We never simply see a thing; we always see it as something else.

So one person sees a snake as a threat, another sees it as an emblem of wildness, and still another sees it as a pretty design. The snake may actually be all these things, but each of them goes beyond the being of the snake itself. In other words, for each individual, the snake becomes a symbol that points beyond itself.

To perceive an object is already to interpret it. To interpret it is to understand it as pointing beyond itself. Interpretation assigns a meaning to the object and renders it significant in relation to other objects and to the perceiving subject.

This act of interpreting every object is so transparently habitual that most people are completely unaware of doing it. Most people think that they are simply experiencing the world. What they experience, however, is not simply what is “out there” but what they have construed the “out there” to mean.

Some people do become aware that they are interpreting the world. Some even become aware (perhaps keenly so) that their perception of the world is significantly different from the perceptions of the people around them. They know that they see something that no one else sees. These are the people who become mystics, artists, or both.

To understand that one is looking beyond the object of perception is, I think, what Coleridge meant by “primary imagination.” Everyone imagines the world. Everyone looks through objects, not just at them. Coleridge is using the expression “primary imagination” for the realization that what one perceives is not merely the sensible object, but the significance of the object.

Once we are aware of the capacity for primary imagination, we can also entertain the possibility of directing it. We can deliberately begin to consider objects with the purpose of looking through them. We can consciously intend to interpret the objects of our perception, to become aware of levels of meaning and symbolism that have previously been opaque to us.

This seems to be just what the English Romantics meant to do. They wanted to discover modes of seeing that would enable them to perceive objects in more meaningful ways. The ability to capture such a perspective and to see beyond the object was what they thought of as genius.

Since this capacity was to some degree deliberate, they sometimes reasoned that it could be enhanced—perhaps through the use of drugs, perhaps through immersion in sensation. In those moments, what they coveted was not mere inebriation or debauchery. What they desired was the moment of insight, the moment of looking-through-and-beyond the object, the moment of genius.

Perhaps we disagree with their methods, or at least some of them. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge the importance of looking through and looking beyond the object of sensation. Once we have grasped this concept, we can begin to understand why the arts are so important, for they are the vehicles that open to us new ways of seeing.


This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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