imagination nature itself

2. “Nature is imagination itself”

Part two in a four-part series exploring the shifting images of creativity in the history of western thought. Click here for part one.

It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that the idea of self-originating novelty gained wider acceptance, when in the wake of Immanuel Kant’s idealist philosophy, the Romantics granted creative imagination a pivotal life of its own. Inspired by Kant’s Aristotelian concept of the imagination as a unifying organ of consciousness, Coleridge famously declared the Romantic Imagination ‘the prime agent of all human perception’, wedding the finite mind with the eternal in its infinitely productive capacity. Around this period, theories of aesthetics were moving away from the traditional neo-classical image of art as a ‘mirror of nature’ and began to shift attention for the first time toward the artist, placing higher importance on self-expression as a mark of ‘sincerity’ or originality, an ideal that preoccupied Romantic thinkers more so than any other intellectual movement before or since.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

Contemporary critics often deride Wordsworth for his ‘morbid’ tendency to taint the appearances of Nature with the pathetic fallacy of anthropomorphic projections. But for the Romantic poets, this ‘sense sublime / of something far more deeply interfused’ was the genetic wellspring of poetic images, not simply because of its spontaneity, but in its acting as an evocative muse for the poet’s imaginative expression. As Blake saw it, ‘To the eyes of a man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.’ Romantic poetry was therefore a perfect union of spontaneous impulse and voluntary will which became greater than the sum of its parts in the act of invention, granting agency to the poet and simultaneously internalising the divine inspiration that for the Greeks had been a sign of genius.1

This Romantic obsession with originality and the artist-as-experiencer stemmed from a longing to understand what it meant to be human in the face of the growing rationalisation of Nature, but it was also a reaction against the rise of industry and the dehumanising effects of mass production. The Romantics believed themselves to be involved in nothing less than a battle for the human spirit to be won at all costs, otherwise Plato’s definition of art would be realised on factory production lines and bring about an anaemic and soulless culture in which the consumption of commodified simulacra became society’s raison d’être.

Against this threat, the poet’s affinity with nature and the sublime visions it admitted were seen as revolutionary and liberating – a sort of divine madness that could free the human soul from the shackles of mechanised conformity. But for an intellectual majority that believed excessive imagination was to be found in the nearest insane asylum, the ‘mad poet’ of Greek genius was nothing more than a deluded luddite fleeing from the demands of a modernising society and the progressive march of reason. Indeed, the legacy of British empiricism had already lit the touchpaper for imagination’s demystification, just as Newton’s Law of Gravity had brought the alchemists’ ‘intervening spirits’ crashing down to earth. For the empiricist Hume, the imagination was readily explained by way of its so-called ‘copy principle’. This, Hume said, was the mind’s tendency to passively duplicate sense impressions in the form of fainter images – ideas, which, howsoever decomposed or combined, were the result of an involuntary and habitual process of association. Far from a union of immanent pantheistic spirit and human free will, imagination was seen by associationists as determined in the same way that Newtonian physicists regarded the properties of matter to be bound by causal laws.

As associationism continued to influence theories of cognition through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new, democratised image of mental dysfunction gradually came into focus. This less totalising version of psychic instability released the stigmatised ether of so-called madness from the insane asylums, allowing it to condense in cases of ‘hysteria’, ‘the vapours’ and other modish conditions among the expanding middle classes. Eventually, such nervous diseases would be distilled into the single medical term ‘neuroses’, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was the turn of psychoanalysts to redraw the image of the creative imagination.

But if the sublime poets and Dionysian revellers had ever been subjected to the therapist’s couch, their Freudian diagnosis would have proved an affront much worse than the associationist kind. For while the Romantics had looked to Nature for divine inspiration, followers of the psychoanalytic school regarded such idle pondering as the surface froth of a bubbling nest of repression. In the minds of many Freudians, Wordsworth’s intuition and identification with nature was essentially a cop-out in the face of reality’s brute facts; most obviously his ‘sense sublime’ was a case of transference – a maternal substitute, deduced from the fact that he lost his mother early in life.

Indeed, many psychoanalysts viewed the pre-occupations of the Romantics as symptomatic of displaced Oedipal forces, a neurotic condition that was nevertheless redeemed by its countervailing aesthetic value. Arch analyst Freud was unequivocal in his disdain: the neurologist branded not just poetry, but all forms of human creativity as a heady mix of frustration, emotional tension and ‘sublimated’ neuroses. It made no difference to him if art was ‘sublime’; to the analyst it was but a gossamer-thin affectation concealing deep and instinctual libidinal drives.

Surrounding himself with unhealthy patients, perhaps it is unsurprising that Freud’s put-down theories of creativity circled like vultures over a latent psychopathology. Yet his core project of ‘making the unconscious conscious’ at least acknowledged the reality of inner experience, which the later psychology of behaviourism lacked both the time and the imagination for. Essentially, the behaviourist’s position was simple: a creative act of the imagination only seemed free and spontaneous, but was really a conditioned unconscious mechanism brought about by a diet of punishment and reward, with a dollop of sexual tension thrown in for good measure. Poets wrote poems like hens laid eggs, and consequently felt better for it. And in one fell swoop behaviourists had neutralised the perceived subjectivism at the heart of analysis. In the face of such ‘objective certainty’, it would take the formation of an entirely new field of psychological study to come to the imagination’s rescue.

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1 As Shelley states in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1840): ‘A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, the one’. However, the poet also expresses ‘the actions and passions’ of an ‘internal being’, which can only be his own.