The Importance of Imagination, Part 8


Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

Secondary Imagination

The primary imagination enables us to look beyond the object of perception and to see other layers of significance in it. What each of us perceives in the object is personal and, therefore, different from the perceptions of everyone else. Sometimes our perceptions are sufficiently profound and out of the ordinary to convince us that we have gained some insight into the nature of the thing that we are observing and, consequently, into the nature of the world itself.

Once we have gained an insight, i.e., a significantly different way of seeing the world, we often experience the impulse to share it. Here we find ourselves confronted with a challenge because an imaginative insight cannot (properly speaking) be communicated. In this respect it is akin to an emotional state. When we experience joy, sorrow, or anger, we can communicate to other people that we are happy or sad or mad—but we cannot communicate the emotion itself. Since emotions cannot be communicated, they must be evoked. Something other than our statement of emotion is necessary if we wish other people actually to enter into the emotion and experience it for themselves.

So it is with the insights of the imagination. When we desire to share an insight, our goal is not simply to announce to the world that we have experienced a moment of truth. Our goal is to reproduce in others the same insight that we ourselves have experienced.

That is the purpose of art. A work of art is a representation of the world as the artist sees it. It is an invitation to see the world through the artist’s eyes and to experience it as the artist has. It is an attempt to provoke within another the same insight that the artist has already perceived.

In order to accomplish this task, the artist has to pay attention to two problems. The first problem is posed by the insight itself. The artist must focus upon the insight and seek to understand it. The artist must weigh it, taste it, savor it, and measure it with all the skills that the imagination affords. What artists are trying to accomplish at this stage is to explain the insight to themselves.

The second problem is posed by the viewer, listener, or reader of the artistic production. The artist wishes to reproduce the moment of insight within another’s imagination. Consequently, the business of the artist is to seek out the modes of expression that are most likely to evoke the correct response. A painter will be thinking about things like space, texture, hue, proportion, and movement. A composer will be weighing choices of melody, timbre, tempo, harmony, and dynamics. A poet will give consideration to rhythm, diction, tone, and connotation. All artists will occupy their minds with symbols and analogies.

The solution to both of the foregoing problems lies in the imagination. For both solutions, however, the imagination is no longer focused upon the world itself as a source of insight. Rather, it is focused upon an insight already gained, then upon the procedures for evoking that insight within another imagination. As I understand him, this is the activity that Coleridge labels the “secondary imagination.”

The primary imagination is what enables us to gain insight into the world. It allows us to see meaning and significance as we look through things rather than simply at them. The secondary imagination is what enables us to share our insights with other people. It allows us to frame words or pictures or tones in such a way that a corresponding insight is evoked in someone else’s imagination.

If the discussion is opaque so far, it may be useful to deal with examples. We shall consider two. The first is drawn from secular literature and is shaped by the idyllic imagination. The second will be presented in the next essay, which will examine a scriptural exercise in the theological imagination. Both examples are good illustrations of primary and secondary imagination at work.

The first example is the poem “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” by William Wordsworth. Clearly, this poem is an exercise of the imagination. In spite of the title, Wordsworth himself explained that the actual writing of the poem took place after the experience that the poem narrates. It is an example of what he labeled “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Here is the text of the poem.

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

William Wordsworth

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The episode in the poem is simply described. The poet is crossing Westminster Bridge early in the morning. There he beholds the city of London in the clear light.

What Wordsworth perceived, however, was not simply the city as a collection of buildings and people. Rather, he saw something beyond the city itself. What Wordsworth glimpsed becomes apparent to us as we experience the poem.

His fundamental metaphor is that the city, viewed in its stillness in the clear light of morning, is like a sleeping giant. What manner of giant? Wordsworth chose expressions that help us to see what he saw in London: words such as majesty and temples (why not simply churches?) and the line “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” In his mind’s eye, Wordsworth beholds, not London that is, but the transcendent, heroic (or messianic?) London. To him this transcendent London is so obvious that only the “dull of soul” could pass by without understanding.

Wordsworth’s vision of London was an exercise of the primary imagination. He looked at the city and perceived in it a symbol of slumbering, heroic greatness. According to his own testimony, this symbol was not something that he fully grasped in the seeing, but rather a thing that he worked out later in tranquility.

Wordsworth’s poem is a successful attempt to share his insight. It evokes within us a corresponding vision through the careful choice of images, cadences, and evocative language (among other things). The poem itself (in distinction from the vision that it reveals) is an excellent illustration of the secondary imagination at work.

All art, then, involves both primary and secondary imagination. Without primary imagination, the artist has nothing to say. Without secondary imagination, he cannot say it, or at least cannot say it well. Both primary and secondary imagination are pivotal for all artistic work.

They are also pivotal for art that focuses our attention upon God and spiritual things. Since God is imagined, He must be imagined rightly. To imagine Him wrongly is precisely to make an idol. For Christians, the right use of the imagination is crucial.

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)

    UNFOLD! unfold! Take in His light,
Who makes thy cares more short than night.
The joys which with His day-star rise
He deals to all but drowsy eyes;
And, what the men of this world miss
Some drops and dews of future bliss.

    Hark! how His winds have chang’d their note!
And with warm whispers call thee out;
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
The lofty groves in express joys
Reply unto the turtle’s voice;
And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear!

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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