William Oxley: The Imminent Imagination


A number of difficulties are attendant upon any discussion of the imagination, none more severe than when for discursive purposes it has to be viewed as a separate faculty of the mind. This necessarily delimits the imagination artificially in that it conceptually separates the imagination from other faculties of the mind and tends to make it autonomous.

Coleridge who, more than most, studied the nature and operation of the imagination kept ever before him the ultimate inseparableness of all mental faculties, even going so far as to explicitly define `genius' - that highest expression of thought more commonly associable with the imagination than the reason - as `the action of reason and imagination' (1). By contrast Blake, in understandable reaction to those like Newton and Locke who deified reason, spoke of `Jesus the Imagination' - the saviour of the human spirit as it were - making it the supreme and transcendent faculty of all. In like manner Schopenhauer following Kant, but even more rigidly, confined the power of reason, or what he termed in the Scholastics' manner `sufficient reason', thus: `the Platonic Ideas ... as a whole express themselves in innumerable individuals and particulars, and are related to these as archetypes to their copies. The multiplicity of such individuals is only conceivable through time and space, their appearing and passing away through causality, and in all these forms we recognise merely the different modes of the principle of sufficient reason, which is the ultimate principle of all that is finite... If the Platonic Ideas are to become objects of knowledge, this can only happen by transcending the individuality of the knowing subject' (2). In this Schopenhauer went further than Kant's `concepts without intuition are empty' and regarded the whole operation of conception and reasoning as secondary to that of the primary act of transcendent intuition or imagination. On the other hand Keats was perhaps nearer the viewpoint of the ultimately validating inseparableness of reason and imagination with his vague synthesising qualification of: `axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses' (3). Which is not so far from Coleridge when - doubtless driven to revolt like Blake by the cold impersonal universe of the Newtonians - he insisted that `thought and feeling must come together' if truth is to be grasped; and rather than jettison reason altogether - as a true metaphysician cannot do in any case - he went on to make perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most famous, statement in our language upon the subject of the imagination. He said: `You may conceive the difference in kind between the Fancy and the Imagination in this way, - that if the check of the senses and the reason were withdrawn, the first would become delirium, and the last mania. The Fancy brings together images which have no connection natural or moral, but are yoked together by ... means of some accidental coincidence; the Imagination modifies images and gives unity to variety; it sees all things in one.' (4) The point to note here, amongst others, being that Coleridge does not advocate the removal of the `check of reason'.

More recently Elémire Zolla has written: `About two centuries ago something strange and evil happened in the West. Contact was generally lost with the idea of a transcendent, absolute truth. And, of course, as a result, day-dreaming and imagination became indistinguishable. Archetypal symbols were looked upon as mere arbitrary signs or as simple ornamental motifs' (5). Zolla refers directly to Coleridge observing that: `The general ignorance about imagination was such that when Coleridge sought to define the difference between imagination and fancy at the beginning of the 19th century hardly anyone could grasp what he might be speaking of' (6). And Zolla has no doubts at all as to the consequence of this loss and confusion: `When the proper use of imagination ceased, art fatally declined and spirituality itself became unintelligible' (7). He clearly follows Schopenhauer and even more Blake with: `Imagination is the isthmus between life and extinction, night and day, deceit and truth.' (8), going even so far as to assert that: `Imagination lies under a ban in the Westernized world of today' (9).

It is clear, however, that both Zolla and Coleridge (or A.K.Coomeraswamy who wrote: `We cannot give the name of art to anything irrational' (10) would condemn in particular all art of the modern surrealist variety as being a blasphemy against the true imagination and far worse than anything of which empirical reasoning or logical positivism are capable. Though it might be argued that surrealism is, in fact, a product of some form of cynical logical positivism: even if the spirit of surrealism does seem nearer Zolla's `day dreaming' deliberately undertaken: `After you have settled yourself in a place as comfortable as possible to the concentration of your mind ... write quickly without any preconceived object ... the first sentence will come spontaneously ... so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness ... this is what is most interesting and intriguing about the surrealist game ... Automatic writing is especially conducive to the production of the most beautiful images' (11).

But whatever Coleridge or Zolla might feel about the matter this apparently random probing of the subconscious mind, this self-confessed activity of the fancy or `game', has received much indirect endorsement from modern psychoanalysts, particularly C.G.Jung who wrote: `Nothing could be more erroneous than to assume that the poet creates from the material of (literary) tradition. He works rather from primal experience... The primal experience is word and imageless for it is a vision in a dark mirror... That which appears in the vision is the collective unconscious, that curious structure inherited through the generations of the preliminary psychic conditions of the consciousness. The important thing ... lies in the fact that these manifestations of the collective unconscious have a compensatory character with relation to the state of (contemporary) consciousness; that is to say, that a one-sided, abnormal, dangerous state of consciousness is teleologically brought to equilibrium through it...' (12) According to E.B.Germain, Jung's essay `had enormous impact on English and American surrealists who recognised it as an ultimate argument against the rationalists' (13), Of course philosophically-speaking, as to whether Jung's essay is so contra the rationalists depends upon what significance is attached to the word `teleologically' and to the phrase `word and imageless'. But, nevertheless, two things are still open to question concerning surrealism, namely: the imaginative value of the movement as an expression of truth; and its relation to either day-dreaming, or to the more orthodox view of imagination so persuasively presented by Henry Corbin in his essay entitled `the mundus imaginalis', in which he states quite uncompromisingly: `Imagination is the cognitive function of this world... Active imagination is the mirror par excellence, the epiphanic place for the Images of the archetypal world'; and to understand this `other realm of reality that confronts us with certain experience and evidence... we would in any event have to have a cosmology that cannot even be compared with the most outstanding discoveries of modern science in relation to our physical universe' (14). In other words what Corbin is saying, not only is the imagination the prime mental faculty but, to adapt a phrase of the painter David Jones, we need to have something like a `shared belief' to ensure a proper understanding and participation in this `other realm of reality'.

However, the final word among this `clash of authorities' on the nature of the imagination must concern itself with the hermeneutic aspect - with the means whereby the imagined reality is interpreted. Namely, with the symbol: that symbol which I would define as the analogical signifier, and when joined with other such `signifiers' forms an analogical discourse.

Gilbert Durand has this to say of the analogical discourse: `Symbolic thought ... places itself squarely behind the hermeneutic view that wishes to decipher the secrets, to get through to them. Symbolic thought is gnostic, while scientific thought is agnostic... Symbolic thought searches for the meaning behind the number or the phenomenon... This is because what dominates the procedures of "indirect" or symbolic thinking is qualitative pluralism rather than the quantity that unifies the mathematical idealism of science' (15).

In brief, what symbolic thought seeks to achieve is the presentation and interpretation of the maximum plurality of meaning in the minimum of imagery - something best achieved in the symbol. What it seeks most to avoid is crude literalism on the one hand, and pure abstraction on the other. And the reason why the maximum layers of meaning can be incorporated in the symbol is because it is a chosen particular or individual designed to suggest not a unique generality corresponding only to the individual but a plural generality associable with it either arbitrarily or through custom. Not one generality but at least two, viz: the generality of all that the symbolic particular is (e.g. a tree as metaphor of `life' or `knowledge' or `wisdom' etc.). Finally, the various layers of meaning attaching to any particular symbol are usually acquired over an immeasurable period of time (c.f. Jung's `collective unconscious' as the breeding ground of symbols?) or are, depending upon one's belief, god-given, and as Corbin infers the layers are cosmologically significant as conforming to eternal archetypes. But as to whether we have or know all the archetypes yet, or as to how far a symbol can be private as opposed to public, are open questions not for discussion here.


It will be clear from what has so far been said that even among those authorities who have given a great deal of attention and thought to this subject, there is by no means clear agreement as to the nature of the imagination - as to what it is. One thing, however, is observable and that is: much of the disagreement springs from just how much emphasis the particular authority places upon isolating the imagination from the other faculties of the mind. Spinoza, who certainly did not lack a profound understanding, observed that: `If God is not rational he is nothing' (16). He was clearly a rationalist and one who was later to be charged with `reducing God to a substance'. Blake, by contrast, so far exalted and deified the imaginative viewpoint, what he called `vision', as to affirm that it represented the only true reality. But Coleridge, as has been shown, did not appear to favour either of such extreme separations preferring a basically `whole mind' approach, if a highly discriminating one.

But probably no one has quite expressed the ambivalent and manifold nature of the imaginative experience more simply or better than did Wordsworth in his famous lines on childhood and its immortal recollections:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life's star,
      Hath had elsewhere its setting,
            And cometh from afar;
      Not in entire forgetfulness
      And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
            From God, who is our home...
      Oh joy! that in our embers
            Is something that doth live
      That Nature yet remembers
            What was fugitive!


But after further thought of `our past years' which `breed perpetual benediction' he goes on to say:

            - Not for these I raise
            The song of thanks and praise;
      But for those obstinate questionings
      Of sense and outward things,
      Fallings from us, vanishings
      Blank misgivings of a creature
      Moving about in worlds not realized,


And this ambivalence towards the imaginative experience, this failure to agree about what it is or to fully understand it, this `moving about in worlds not realized', has played some part in the debasement of the word `imaginative' where, in common parlance, it has come to mean false or fictional. Quite wrongly.

Clearly, though, differences apart, there is no disagreement as to the importance of the imaginative faculty in the minds of all these quoted authorities. For there seems a general consensus that the imagination plays both a mediating and an originating role in the formulation of human consciousness. What difficulty - and hence differences - is encountered appears to arise in two ways. Firstly, the products of the imagination - like anything living - are ambiguous, which is to say: possessed of a plurality of meanings. The character of a person is sufficient paradigm of that. But however singular an imaginative symbol or figure may be, single of meaning it will not be. Hence the ambiguity of all art. Secondly, there appears to be no clear understanding of the relationship between the imagination and the other faculties of the mind, chiefly reason.

But that the whole panoply of reason - or ratiocination - had its birth in the act of imagination, and continues to be nourished by the fire of imagination, seems to me an elementary truth. Though, as has been pointed out, such as Schopenhauer would not agree. Yet is there substantial disagreement as may be supposed? Schopenhauer argues that when the earthbound will is suspended and rational dualism negated, the self is forgotten, and thus we are able to perfectly objectify and so perceive the eternal order of things. In effect, he is speaking of what poets refer to as `the creative trance' and the yogi as at its most transcendent stage possible `samadhi', in which there is suspension not only of the critical faculties but of all of self-consciousness.

However, with regard to this latter, there are two points to be made. Firstly, there has to be a return from this creative trance unless, like a bodhisattva, the subject passes out of the finite state, is apotheosised and decides not to return. The story of the Dhyani Buddha Amida is relevant here who refused entry into nirvana until he had saved all of mankind. But upon our return we bring back to the realm of conscious reason our impressions of the eternal archetypes. Secondly, this gnostic return presents to consciousness the eternal ideas in forms that conform to the dictates of the spacio-temporal world. Consequently, an imaginative symbol in nature - Adam Kadmon - is the clearest possible of the archetypes: an embodied soul that has made this return, and makes it every day of its life however fleetingly and subconsciously. The entire process of which is beautifully and allusively condensed in the lines I quoted from Wordsworth.

In this way all the ideas of consciousness plus the intuitive, automatic concepts whereby man's mind `frames' the conscious world - his perceptions of time, space, quantity, quality, etc. - have their birth in the imagination: and only custom and useage makes man forget this truth. Indeed, the entirety of human consciousness is self-evidently a single integrated act of perception which at the input or intuitive end is imaginative and at the output end is rationalized. And, like I say, this applies to every particular idea however well used to it we have become. Difficulty only starts when the imaginative origin of all thought is forgotten and a rootless reason is exalted that fills the gaps between visible objects and the perceiving subject with abstractions. This problem is with us now and was in Schopenhauer's day also; and I dare say will remain as long as `abstracted' reason continues to be exalted not only as the ultimate faculty of knowledge but also as an autonomous faculty.

Only art or a gnostic cosmology can bridge this gap - can overcome the widespread tendency to substitute the abstractionism of an autonomous reason for the vital imagination. But, that said, it has to be stressed that true gnosis is not any sort of shamanism or a magical way of thought; nor is it a system of fancy, nor any product of superstitious worship of the irrational as imagination, etc. Rather is it, as Coleridge inferred, the reason and the imagination properly understood and in harmony. For the point is that neither the one faculty of reason, nor the other of imagination, can autonomously and by themselves reveal the truth in a manner intelligible to and satisfying of the intellect.


It is not possible to consider the role of the imagination, nor say anything about its nature, without expressing some value judgment upon what is revealed by the imagination, namely, the eternal archetypes from which all the ideas that compose consciousness are derived - much in the way that the bricks of a great cathedral are made from pre-existent clay. In other words, the rational consciousness being a spacio-temporal copy of the imaginative consciousness, we needs must say something as to how much faith we may have in the things of knowledge produced this way - paricularly the more overtly imaginative ideas. I say this not so much out of an endeavour to overcome the widespread and profane distrust of the more obvious products of the imagination - which is but a small local difficulty in the aeons of time, much as is the present failure to distinguish between mere fancy and true imagination - but in order that we may have a better notion of the limits of both conceptual and intuitive thought.

Truth is only imminent not actual in this world. The perfect and the absolute are only indirectly apprehensible by the finite intellect. Therefore, even the most precise archetypal symbol is but an inadequate representation of that truth which it seeks to project into the consciousness of the spacio-temporal domain. For such symbol or archetypal formulation is only known by the human mind - through the human imagination - as a delimited form: and the eternal and limitless cannot, by definition, be confined. The moment an archetype is recognised - even one so intractable as the mandala - it has become a spacio-temporal structure. Consequently, any recognized archetype is only imminently knowable, never actually known. Which is why every act of cognition is, in fact, an act of faith: and the more an idea is imaginative and comes before our minds trailing Wordsworth's `clouds of glory', the greater the Kierkegaarden `leap of faith' that is needed to absorb it. And this also applies deep down to every least little idea and most familiar notion we have, no matter how concrete it may seem.

All must be an act of faith where the truth of the world can only be imminent, is only imminent, not actual in the sense of being fully spiritually understood. The great problem of truth for man springs from the confounding of the unreality or imminent-only nature of this world with an abstracted actuality drawn from the phenomenological aspect of the world alone - which is constantly regarded as the true and real when it is no such thing. The iminent which we know is but a shadow of the actual which we feel. And however imaginative we are, however comprehensive our insight, it is very rare (but necessary) for any man to attain to such a transfinite condition that the imminent becomes the actual for him. When such a state of gnosis is attained however, through the perfectly holy life, the content of it becomes immediately untranslateable back into finite terms, as the various mystics have repeatedly affirmed for, as Lao Tzu said:

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.


Because what is there revealed, as it states in the Allogenes tractate and elsewhere in the Gnostic Gospels: `... is primary revelation and knowledge of himself... He has non-being existence... He exists for all of them unto himself... He is deified insofar as he exists in that he either exists and becomes, or acts or knows, although he lives without mind or life or non-existence, incomprehensibly' (19), is irreducible to finite concepts or symbols at all.

In which event that imagination which is operative and functional in the finite world, and whose symbology howsoever primal and archetypal it may be, is but an imminent imagination capable of revealing to reason only circumscribed notions through limited symbols of a reality that is necessarily elsewhere.

It is clear, then, that the true imaginative act in this world consists of a suspension of the `either-or' dualism which is so basic to rational thinking and, instead, the substituting as far as possible of an undivided contemplation of the transfinite state of spirit without body. Usually, such an imaginative act springs from a sudden apprehension of something beautiful which enables the mind, however briefly, to `forget the ego' or transcend the body-consciousness. But whether the imaginative state is suddenly and fortuitously entered upon - as is the usual case with poets and artists - or comes about through deliberate meditation - such as yoga teaches - the return to consciousness (i.e. to the domain of reason) is one of diminished fruits. For the eternal ideas obtained through the imaginative act are, by comparison with their transfinite originals, but poor copies or `diminished fruits'.

Even the greatest art - the product of reason and imagination in harmony - is inadequate as a showing forth of the content of true reality. At its best such art shines with an elusive and poetic beauty, a supernal light and a sweet harmony that suggests and echoes, no more than that, the transcendent thinking being of the cosmos. Yet even though the products of the human imagination, and even that imagination itself, is but a way of imminence - an illusive gateway to a reality incompatible with the finite mind - it nevertheless remains, first and last, the only way to the true. Indeed, if I may say so, the only reasonable way to the true.


1. Table Talk, 21.5.1830, S.T.Coleridge.
2. World As Will And Idea, 1818, A.Schopenhauer.
3. `Letter to J.H,Reynolds, 3,5.1818', Letters, J.Keats.
4. Table Talk, 23.6.1834 and also Biographia Literaria, Vol. 1, Ch. XIII, 1817, S.T.Coleridge.
5. The Uses of Imagination and Decline of the West, 1978, Golgonooza Press, E.Zolla.
6. ibid.
7. ibid.
8. ibid.
9. ibid.
10. On the Traditional Doctrine of Art, 1977, Golgonooza Press, A.K.Coomaraswamy.
11. Surrealist Manifesto, 1924, A.Breton.
12. transition, 1930.
13. Introduction to English & American Surrealist Poetry, 1978, Penguin.
14. Henry Corbin On Imagination, 1976, Golgonooza Press.
15. On the Disfiguration of Man in the West, 1977, Golgonooza Press, G.Durand.
16. Ethics, 1673, B.Spinoza.
17. `Ode On Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood', William Wordsworth.
18. Tao Te Ching, 1963, Penguin, trans. D.C.Lau
19. The Nag Hammadi Library, 1977, Leiden, trans. J.M.Robinson.

This essay first appeared in `Romantic Reassessment' (ed. Dr James Hogg), No. 87: 3 (1981), University of Salzburg.