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Published in Vital Speeches of the Day Vol. LXVIII, No. 14 (May 1, 2002): 444-
Two Figures of the Imagination,
and Their Consequences for the Arts
Well now, see what you call this craftsman here.
He who makes everything that each one of the manual artisans makes separately.
That's a clever and wonderful man you speak of.
Not yet. In an instant you'll say that even more. For this same manual artisan is not only able to make all implements but also makes everything that grows naturally from the earth, and he produces all animals--the others and himself too--and, in addition to that, produces earth and heaven and gods and everything in heaven and everything in Hades under the earth.
That's quite a wonderful sophist you speak of.
Plato Republic, 596c
With this short parable Plato begins his extended and famous--or infamous--discussion of the imagination in Republic 10, which concludes with the condemnation of art and the removal of the artists from the city of the philosopher-kings. I do not wish to argue here that that so-called Platonic view is not really Plato's--though I believe it is not his view; nor do I wish to argue that this so-called Platonic view is a mistake--though I think there is something mistaken about it; I wish rather to lay out two views of that clever and wonderful homunculus mentioned above, the imagination, both of which I find in Republic 10, and I wish to make clear what those two views of imagination imply about the place of the arts in any city, or, for that matter, university. The two figures of the imagination are not the mirror and the lamp, but the mirror and the demi-urge.
The figure of the mirror is the one that Socrates suggests a few lines further down in this dialogue, and is the source for all the usual consequences. Socrates suggests that there is God's bed (or the idea of a bed), and then the carpenter's bed, made by someone paying attention to the idea, and then the artist's bed, say Vincent Van Gogh's, which is a just one way a bed might appear, depending on where and how you place the mirror of your imagination, and probably how clear or diseased your imagination is. But even at its best and clearest, say the bed of Vermeer's imagination rather than Vincent's, the bed of the painter is mirroring only one view--partial and incomplete and useless for design or sleeping--of the sturdy, useful, pleasant real bed made by the carpenter. The mirroring imagination is, as Socrates says, three steps removed from the truth: God's idea. In another story about a bit and bridle, it is the horseman who uses it who knows what the thing is and what it is supposed to do. So in both cases there are the knower of the truth of the bed (or bit and bridle); the maker--the carpenter or leather-worker who has true opinion about it which he gets by listening to the one who knows, so making the thing correctly; and the artist is third, without any necessary connection to the truth of beds, bits or bridles at all: the mirror's mirroring may not even be accurate from the perspective the artist has--if the mirror has a funny curve in it or is cracked, which seems to be the case with Mr. Van Gogh.
One might wish at this point to attempt to mitigate the strength of this Platonic claim against what we might call the epistemological value of art as a product of the mirroring imagination by saying that it is a perspective. A perspective is, admittedly, not the whole truth of a thing, but a partial truth; it is (as a close examination of the mirror and painting metaphors exhibit) like a two dimensional reduction of three dimensional reality, and as no one mistakes the architect's plan for the building, though it does express some of the truths of the building, no one should take an artist's work as a reality, though that does not imply it cannot express some truths about the reality. This is not, however, quite as salvific an idea for art as it at first seems. We should note that such a perspectival defense begins by admitting that art is a weak and attenuated version of the truth of things: a limp-wristed version of a real carpenter, who is himself the strong-armed version of the divine and absolute mathematician. Secondly, this defense seems not to be able to answer the real Platonic criticism, namely that there is no necessary connection between the reality of things and the appearance in art. In fact, in order to check on the validity of the work of art we would have to turn to one of the people higher up on the ladder--the user or the maker of bed, bit or bridle--to see if there is any connection. It is through the techne and knowledge of the two higher beings that we even can check to see if there is any truth or validity to the work of the artist. The artist as an artist can't even test or correct his own work: Art is child's play.
The important and obvious consequence of this view of the imagination for the arts is one that seems to be endemically accepted in our culture: the arts have no connection to the truth, and so no use for real life. They are at best an entertainment. This is not merely an ancient and long abandoned Platonic position. For example, Freud's idea that art is a substitutive satisfaction, which category also includes mild neuroses and--depending on the good doctor's mood--religion, is less than a half step removed from the Platonic denigration of art. Art, far from being the real thing of Id satisfaction, does not even, like science, change reality in any way which makes it more comfortable. It is an illusion, though one which Freud seems to think has more of a future than religion. Aldous Huxley speaks openly what has become, since his day, the hidden theme of the scientistic culture he put his faith in: "Art ... is only for beginners, or else for those resolute dead-enders, who have made up their minds to be content with the ersatz of Suchness, with symbols rather than with what they signify, with the elegantly composed recipe in lieu of actual dinner."
In fact, one can go further than these mild critics do: the arts might well be dangerous to the intellect since the arts (unlike carpentry and science) do not require any particular discipline. One cannot suffer correction in the arts because, after all, what the imagination of the artist presents is just his or her perspective, which perspective may be highly subjectively colored or bent or projective in a pseudo-Freudian sense (as must be true of Mr. Van Gogh's view of his bed). If one carries this artistic practice into life, the results are predictable: cutting off one's ear to send to one's favorite girl, madness, suicide, eating the cigar. That's a perspective. There are other ways to make an impression. It is saner to choose them. It is, then, perfectly reasonable for many parents to be quite displeased when their children go off even to inexpensive colleges like ours in order to become artists; this is especially the case if the child in question is not taking courses in Education at the same time and so has no plan to become a teacher, which might at least provide a regular (if impoverished) income. And again, we can go further: if in fact art has no connection to the truth and is just a highly subjective (or, original) perspective on...whatever, then two questions follow: a) how could anyone teach it and b) why would any state want to pay teachers to get its citizens to do this? These are the money questions. Plato's argument takes them seriously and answers: we shouldn't. Let them be sent away. Many school boards and vice-chancellors take this philosophy seriously; it might be the only philosophy they know. And, by the way, is philosophy an art?
At this point in the Republic, Socrates tells a version of the old joke about teachers, using Homer as his whipping boy, and as the synecdochic figure of all artists: Homer, Socrates says, obviously wasn't able to do any real thing (or he would have done it), he is not able to teach any techne or art (for no one credits him with having taught them how to farm or be a general or doctor), and unlike Pythagoras (who was a religiously significant figure at the time), no group of people traces its way of life to him: he can't do, he can't teach, and he isn't even given credit for administering (cf. 599b-600e). This is really a helpless creature, and this creature is the figure of the artist as an old blind man.
And that is less than half of the Platonic argument, for it only deals with the intellectual effect of art under the figure of the imagination as mirror. There is also the question of art's, and the mirroring imagination's, effect on the passions. Here, Socrates says, things are even worse. Since art cannot be appealing to the part of us that counts--counting being the work of reason and so essential to the mathematician and the carpenter, but not the artist--the appeal of art must be to the passions. We like a painting or a piece of music because of how its colored and how it makes us feel, and here the fact that art is known not to be a reality is what makes it the more insidiously dangerous. For example, in real life a morally serious human being pays attention to his feelings, and, where they miss the mark, attempts to correct them. We notice in ourselves feelings of intense anger or vexation--perhaps toward a disobedient child—we calm ourselves. Or, we notice feelings of hatred or disgust—perhaps toward a particularly idiotic faculty trouble-maker (should God be so ill-humored as to create such a being)—we try to imagine that they too are children of God.
But in art things are different. For example, that noted Platonist, Augustine remembers a scene in Terence's The Eunuch. In the play a young man gazes at a picture on the wall (these days a magazine or web-site) which shows Jove doing his usual thing with a human female. The boy exclaims:
Ah, what a God! He shakes the highest heavens with his thunder!
Shall I, poor mortal man, not do the same?
I've done it, and with all my heart, I'm glad.
Augustine point out the problem of such art: "See how he rouses himself to lust, as if by heavenly instruction" (Conf. 1.16.25). So much for classic literature.
The difference is, in the two real life cases we attempt to correct, to truncate or root out, the feelings of anger or disgust. In looking at art, however, we are not so careful; like the boy in the play, we who are looking at the art let the lusty feeling rear its head and play; we give it, as Freud will say, a substitutive satisfaction. But the Platonic and later Augustinian argument is far less sanguine than Dr. Freud about the value of this cultural enterprise. Dr. Freud says that "temptations are merely increased by constant frustration, whereas an occasional satisfaction of them causes them to diminish, at least for the time being." Plato and Augustine pay much more attention to this "for the time being" that Dr. Freud glosses over. What is going on in the "for the time being" of such aesthetic satisfaction is the feeding of a wild beast in the soul (according to Plato's imagery)--the lion cub we play with will ravin the city when it grows, and such passions grow by what they feed upon. When it comes back, the passion is bigger: thus does art corrupt the emotions of even the better sort of human being, the sort that ordinarily watches where its feelings are aiming, the sort that practices custody of the eyes in real life but allows art's encitement because it is, after all, only art: they do but poison in jest. Do you notice the pun now: ingest poison?
The second figure for the imagination, which also can be found in Plato, is that of the demi-urge. The demi-urge is rather more well-known as that being in Timeaus, Plato's creation story, which, looking at the eternal divine truth, fashions the world to be the moving image of eternity. He does not create from nothing or by speaking, but is a being existing somewhere between the world of matter and the divine eternity. But the word demiourgos also shows up quite frequently in the section of Republic in which the debate about poetry is carried through to its radically limiting conclusion, and the way it appears in that section encourages me to think that Plato is hoping his readers will discover what the boys within the discussion do not discover: that the story of the mirroring imagination, while neat and attractive, is too simple to carry the burden of any great art, like that of Homer or Aeschylus, or even Euripides, the boys' older contemporary. The phrasing in Republic that strikes me as hinting at this suggestion is Socrates' claim that the poet (which just means 'maker' and can, as Aristotle's Poetics makes clear, refer to the making of anything in what we call an art) is a demiourgos idola (599a9), a demi-urge of idols; that those who see only through words are poets--makers--of idola (601a).
At first blush this phrasing, particularly in the context of the critique of poetry rehearsed above, makes poetry sound even worse than the argument has so far been willing to say--it seems, in our ears, to demonize art or imagination as a false religion. That it has been this on some occasions to some people is probably true. But that is not the direct point I wish to make, or make of Plato. If we remember the demi-urge of Timeaus, who is inspired by love to make in time what he sees of eternity--knowing that what he makes is not the God but the moving image, then we can begin to understand poetry, in the broad Greek sense which includes all the arts and all makings, as a work of praise and divinely inspired eros. As a work of praise and divinely inspired eros it aims at the truth, the eternal truth of the divine which inspires it, but it does so in a medium subject to and embedded in time and history. A medium like language, or one that perhaps changes more slowly, like columns of stone (the Parthenon) or ochre clay on a cave wall (the paintings of Lascaux).
But then why not add these other historically changing media: the laws of a society, the symbols and explanations of the sciences? Do we not have to understand statesmanship and science, as well as poetry and the arts, as demi-urgic activities? Science, politics and art all require such an imagination, an imagination, which, like the demi-urge, pays attention to the divine truth in making its moving image. And clearly the scientific, political and artistic imaginations of various individuals, like individual students in class, can be more or less attentive, more or less careful, diligent, disciplined, more or less rawly talented—and more or less willful. By willful I mean, in every field, thinking of oneself as God and attempting to make the political, the scientific or the artistic over into one's own image. That this in fact has happened on occasion in human history probably needs few reminders, but here are several anyway: Napoleon's famous declaration "L'etat c'est moi" is merely the open expression of what several Caesars before him, and numerous world warriors after him, have attempted to carry out. The Romans, remember, used to call Caesar a god, and they meant it: they killed you if you disagreed. That's what it means to mean something in politics.
In science we might recall two rather outrageous incidents, which lasted quite a number of years. The more famous is that of Galileo, who was basically put under house arrest and forbidden to teach due to the influence of the Catholic church. The motive for that long languishing of one of the great scientific imaginations of all time had more to do with the Church's image of itself and its place in the world than with either what the Church's own Jesuit astronomers knew about the movement of the heavens or what the Church Fathers had taught for centuries about the reading of Genesis, Exodus or Joshua. There is also a lesser known but no less long languishment of biology under Stalin's state supported Lamarckianist programs. Biologists who disagreed went unfunded, or were taken to homes for the insane to be cured. For not a few the cure was fatal. That such a biology would give additional support to the dialectical materialist state was taken as a self-evident truth; and that state being the truth, what was a poor biologist to do? In such times the first principle of evolution appears to be 'don't disagree with the administration.'
That artists and literary types have at times suffered from similar, if slightly less universally dangerous, delusions of self-deification as administrators of state needs little evidence, but a few of the more humorous examples might include that parochial group of Cambridge literati who called themselves "the Apostles" and the outlandish instigators of da-da who succeeded in redefining art as a urinal, differently hung..
What these failures (da-da, the Apostles, the Stalinist Lamarckians) indicate is the truth and usefulness of this second Platonic view of imagination as demi-urge; for when the demi-urgic imagination of the artist, statesman or scientist pays attention to the truth of the matter and has the raw talent and disciplined skill (as well as good fortune) in the appropriate media, they get "it" right. What they make is a moving image of eternal truth. Similarly, each--poet, politician, educational administrator, physicist--can get it wrong, and that wrongness is serious and needs to be corrected. And each suffers correction--not from the likings of people, but from the truth about the thing they are trying to get right. Further, insofar as each is attempting to get at some truth through each endeavor's media and techniques, each endeavor is equally important to the full flourishing of temporal life. Newton and Einstein both wanted to think God's thoughts about the physical universe; they both had the raw talent and the disciplined skills necessary, but in addition Einstein had the good fortune to appear after the Michelson-Morley experiments. There is, of course, still a difference between God's thoughts and those of the best physicist or mathematician: God's thought of the universe is creative of the universe, the best physical theory of the universe is a demiurgic idolon of a universe, not the thing itself. The best theory is that idolon which is most successful at explaining and predicting all the data collected over the centuries. Unfortunately for Newton he died before some of the data became available, but fortunately for science his idolon was good enough to run us into something it clearly couldn't explain and didn't predict. For Newton, as for the cave painter of southern France: Vita brevis, ars longa est.
Under this figure of the imagination there is no vitiating distinction between scientist, artist and statesman: all are on the same level--demiurgic makers of idola; all suffer correction by reference to the truth of what it is that their idola are the moving images of, and whose arts themselves might be improved or changed by the introduction of new media or new techniques--like the introduction of acrylics into sculpture or calculus into physics. Each art keeps its techniques and media available and can only achieve as much of the truth as its media admit of. The artist who knows his techniques and media finds some more apropos than others in each case. Each art may then be distinguished by its purpose, for several may use the same media. For example, language is used by the poet, the historian, and the philosopher, and at least occasionally by the physicist.
The demi-urge we call science, whose purpose was and is producing the best idolon of the universe able to be set up in mathematical-physical terms, differs from the demi-urge of the statesman whose aim is to set up the best idolon of a society through his laws. I take it that every mathematician would expect such an idolon to be beautiful, or elegant, as well as just and true. And in all cases the best of them prove their truth by enduring longer. If no relation of ruler and ruled can stand without justice, then the scientist or statesman whose idolon's rules do not do justice to the thing of which it generates the rules will find his idolon adjusted, or destroyed and thrown away: his art has failed. We should expect the same kind of thing to be true in those arts we more regularly call arts, those in which the idola of the imagination come forth as literature, painting, architecture, music. The demi-urge's aim in Plato's creation story is just the same as that we see of the demiourgos idola in art and science and politics: Beauty, Justice, Truth. All three in each. If a poem or a work of architecture or music works for longer than a scientific theory or a government, then, we should begin to suspect that it is because it is truer, more beautiful and more just than those other works of human imagination--in science and politics--have managed to be.
So the poem that begins "Wrath, O Muse, sing of the wrath of Achilles" we should expect to last, as it has, until someone gets wrath and its cure better, and until such a time this poem should be taught everywhere--like calculus. These three--Justice Beauty, Truth--are and ought to be, forever, the aims of the imagination, in all of its works. How is it, then, that we are to know, particularly in the cases of art and politics, whose present imagination is a demi-urge in service to the divine truth and which imagination is in service of itself or some fragment or figment of itself? Who is to say whether the wanton destruction of people and property in a society given over to the increase of Mammon is not the moving image of Allah's divine justice? Who is to say that the patient hunting down of indiscriminate killers and all of their friends and acquaintances is? Who is to say that R. Mutt's fountain is neither a fountain, nor artistic, or that the Trevi in Rome or the Cope in Kearney are both? Who is to say that the administration's view of a general studies program or a university is merely the idolon of their own inelegant willfulness or that the philosophy department's view of each is not merely theirs?
Surely some revelation is at hand. But then the questions would just repeat themselves: whose revelation? which hand? Break out the box-cutters and the bombs; there is a final solution to this problem. At this point I would ask you to remember the swelling threat of the music beginning the last movement of the Ninth Symphony; that music leads up to a bass which cries out:
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
If you remember the music surrounding this line, you will hear and feel my point before I am able to bring it out clearly in words. Pay attention to that fact. Music is better at mimesis of the passions than philosophy, and quicker. We might call the music here invoked, then, an attuning prelude, to better help us over the present difficulty in the argument. The figure which has carried us to this point can carry us over the waves which presently threaten us, both in the argument being presented here and in life; our life in this little parish and our life in the larger and suddenly much more threatening world. The human imagination is, at its best, a demi-urge which, looking at the divine and eternal, makes an idolon of it. The scientist, the artist and the statesman are all on the same level in being such demi-urges, and in making, through their words and symbols and other media, idola. No one of them is necessarily any more removed from the truth than any of the others; no one of them necessarily closer. For example, in the music of this portion of the Ninth Beethoven gets right how the passions of individuals and terrors of the world sound as their chaos grows and seems about to conquer, but a human voice rings out over it and begins to shape the passions and terrors into a chorus that is equally passionate and, we might say, terrific. That it is a human voice is essential, for the grain of the voice is a call to us, and a call upon us, even if it is in a language we do not understand. The music, then, carries us over this tempest and transforms the unchoric perturbation of the more willful passions into praise. As well as any physicist who takes us back to a millisecond after the Big Bang, Beethoven gets it right: the terror of passional chaos and the transformation. He does justice to them both and puts them together in the way that justly transforms such chaos into chorus. Could you change a note and get it right? Only if you are a better composer than Beethoven. Only if you are a better physicist than Stephen Hawking could you take us back further, or by a different and truer route to the temporal origin of time.
Wallace Stevens said that "the poem is the cry of its occasion;" one can, as a poet, then, be partial, incomplete or inaccurate about the occasion; but the poem is the cry of its occasion: attention to the occasion can correct our inaccuracy. In the same way, an astro-physicist can, in measuring the movement of the planets or stars or the pulse of a quasar, be partial or incomplete or inaccurate and so suffer correction by the star if he pays closer attention: his equation is the cry of that occasion. One can also cry wrongly, as did Ptolemy, about movements--the occasions--he measured as accurately as anyone had. Should anyone of us try to rewrite the end of the Ninth Symphony we would probably be found to be crying wrongly--we are not yet perfect enough at the art's crying, though we may be perfectly well aware of the occasion of chaos and the need for a cure of such passions. Even if we are musicians or physicists, it is certainly dubious that we would be able to cry in a way that many would find convincing for over a thousand years, as Ptolemy did, or even over a hundred, as Beethoven has.
So what? What should we do? Let us, then, practice crying with the best of them. Our object is not to be variety, but truth; not difference, but accuracy to the occasion. To educate students in some other thing than this is to arrange their marriage to failure and their slavery to opinion. And we know who those are who are best at crying the occasion, we have known for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years. That is to say, in order to train our demi-urgic imagination we must practice what the masters in our favored medium have practiced: geometry, calculus and differential equations, for example; or control of the hand in drawing a line; government of the tongue in speaking one. We must become familiar with the tools the old masters used, both to see what those tools, that tongue, those media enabled and to see where they failed and how. Only if we do this first will the demi-urge of our own imagination be able, on the occasion, to cry accurately, articulately, or with any hope of that universal choric agreement that every great artist aims at, and some, on occasion, achieve. In that achievement Beauty and Truth are one, Justice and Peace kiss.
Professor of Philosophy
University of Nebraska
Kearney, NE 68849 firstname.lastname@example.org
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