• Andrew Field

Is the Imagination Moral?

Agnes Pelton, "Sand Storm"

In the last post, I talked about the idea of discernment, and ended on a note using the phrase "quasi-correct." In this post, I want to talk more about these ideas, especially in the context of Harold Bloom's notion of misreading, and in a larger context about disillusionment.

I think anyone in the arts has a kind of love affair, for better or ill, with their own subjective world. I don't mean this as something necessarily narcissistic, but I do mean that artists are people who cultivate their inner world, and who in some sense, religious or secular, find the inner world more meaningful, more rich, more sacred, more inviolable, than the outer world, although this needs more definition. I think the relationship between the inner and the outer changes, and developmental psychology is proof of this; but I think that, as we become more mature, we start to realize that, if we are strong inwardly, this shapes our experience of the outer world. If this sounds bizarrely metaphysical, think about how what we do for a living - and therefore what we devote the majority of our hours to - is largely contingent, if we are lucky, on something we are interested in and, perhaps, something we love, or care about, or value. In that sense, a grounded sense, what we actually do and affect in the outer world in a product of what we value in the inner. Which is to say, the first-person perspective, the subjective, is to my mind first philosophy, contra Levinas, who argued that the other is first philosophy.

Artists are people who have a deep knowledge of the importance of the inner world, the subjective, largely because the inner world is where the imagination lives and thrives and flourishes. We collect impressions over time as human beings - memories, experiences, all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life - and over time, if we really think about things, and care about things, these impressions becomes a kind of coherent and incoherent patchwork that the imagination uses to build what it needs to build. And this power of the imagination, and the subjectivity it suggests - for the greatest artists have the most unique styles, and style is a mark of character and therefore subjectivity - in turn suggests that art is by and large bound up more with the subjective than the objective, and that this is indeed a kind of commonplace of criticism, of thinking about art, and therefore aesthetics.

I think we all walk around with a kind of private dialogue or monologue going on inside our heads, but I wonder sometimes how much this is connected to what is actually going on, especially in people who are less mature. For example, if one walks around a town, and looks at people, one will notice that, when one feels seen, one reacts if very different ways based on the maturity level of the person, and based on the person doing the looking. I am a forty-one year old white man, nerdy-looking, somewhat stocky, in good health. If I look at two twenty-something women sitting on a bench, and they see me, they tend to do something with their hair, kind of ruffling it, or they will do something overtly sexual, perhaps to get my attention. Sometimes they will seem to feel excited I am looking at them, but if I keep looking at them, the excitement fades, and they seem like people just putting on airs. And the more one does this, the more one feels that the entire world is a theater of people putting on airs, and the public self people present has virtually nothing to do with their private selves and is in fact a kind of facade, a game, and perhaps an actual illusion.

This hopefully doesn't sound too withering, but I think the novels of Philip Roth, or John Ashbery's poetry, bears this up, meaning there is a stark contrast between how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves, and the only way to get these to meet is to actually talk, or to read something by someone, to communicate. Conversation, as Jurgen Habermas knew, is for that reason so utterly important, since it is the only way we can actually get a sense of one's inner world, aside from art or another non-linguistic form of communication. If one looks at someone, one can come up with a billion hypotheses about them; but as soon as they speak, one can sense, in some sense, what they are about, almost. There is a letter I read once, written by Elizabeth Bishop, where she described hearing someone sneeze, and feeling like she could sense a lot about that person. It sounds ridiculous, but I think there is something to that.

To see that often the public selves people present has nothing to do with their private selves; to see the ugliness in the world, and how it masks itself in various ways; is to be discerning, and is to have a moral sense, and therefore an aesthetic sense, since aesthetics comes from a word meaning perceptiveness. But seeing this requires a kind of frightening disillusionment, since one can only notice ugliness if one has worked to not be an ugly person, and one can only notice greed if one has worked to not be greedy, and so on. What we see is a product of who we are, and this is another reason why the subjective is first philosophy.

Objectivity is a form of discernment, and therefore the result of a kind of disillusionment. It is strange, however, because as an artist, one can never let go of one's inner child - one can never not keep a close watch on one's heart, we could say - and yet how strange that this sense would be paired simultaneously with the sense of the world's almost complete meaninglessness; that, in the end, there really is nothing valuable here except what comes from the heart, or the inner world, or the imagination, but that this itself stems from an enormous poverty, and a terrifying necessity, what Kafka meant when he spoke about the Law.

There is something magic, I think, about art, but I think there is also something totally disenchanted. And trying to talk about how these things coexist simultaneously - trying to theorize it - seems important, since these are both moral and aesthetic issues, and can help us become better critics, as well as better people, partners, friends, neighbors, citizens, artists, etc.

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