Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Limit of Imagination

In my last post, I said that imagination constitutes a limit for discipline. We might also say that scholarship cannot be successfully accomplished by discipline alone. Work as hard as you might, you won't succeed as a scholar if the discipline is not energized (as Williams would put it) by imagination. Too much discipline (which is really not discipline at all, of course) will constrain and ultimately extinguish imagination.

This point falls under a general principle I've previously put as follows: As a worker in the "spirit" you have a moral obligation to avoid soul-destroying labor. Your discipline will not produce what you want to produce, it will only give your mind a series of occasions to express itself more precisely. (I recently put it another way in conversation with a writer: good writing is not about production but precision. It works better in Danish. "Det handler ikke om at producere, men at præcisere." There is a verb form of "precise", i.e., "to [make] precise", that works just like "to produce".)

The disciplined writer has a disciplined mind. But it's a discipline that knows its own limits. It only provides a time and space for the writing to get done. It supports the work of the imagination; it does not drive it ... like a slave. After all, the most important thing about the imagination is its freedom. Having a healthy imagination means being able to form images freely.

But discipline also marks a limit for imagination. Think of the writing process as a series of occasions to "prose" your experience. Without your imagination your experience would be highly impoverished, a mere series of responses to stimuli. But without prose your imagination would only ever play at thinking, never truly work. If you give yourself a definite amount of time (I suggest 27 minutes) to write a definite amount prose (I suggest one paragraph) you are establishing a humane constraint on your mental labor.

Williams says he "let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself" (Spring and All, p. 43). He doesn't say so explicitly, but I believe he discovered that it could not. The imagination is both embodied in an individual and embedded in a society. Opportunities for the precision of poetry, we might say, are always situated in the ongoing production of prose. By writing (and, for that matter, reading) in a disciplined way, you are letting the imagination live its own life. It can't keep itself alive.

One last point. I say "the imagination", not "yours", to emphasize a certain moral obligation. The imagination isn't yours to save. We are collectively responsible for its well-being.

1 comment:

fjb said...

"Precisify" is an English verb, but it still sounds better in Danish.