29 August 2009

Coleridge's 'Imagination' & Orthodox Patristic 'Phantasia'

As I promised, here is a brief passage on the imagination from my mostly completed thesis on the moral theology of reading imaginative literature. Keep in mind that this is merely the introduction to a lengthy section on the potential dangers of imaginative literature from an Orthodox ascetic, hesychastic perspective. But also, this lengthy section is part of an even larger whole where I basically argue that despite the potential dangers, I believe there is indeed a valid place for imaginative literature in the lives of most Orthodox Christians. So comments are welcome (as long as they follow the guidelines I've mentioned here), but don't forget that what you're reading here is not the whole picture. Although I'm not going to follow the current, post-Romantic trend and wax eloquent about the virtues of the imagination, I'm also not trying to suggest that it ought never to be used, or that we have to live like some kind of Puritans and eschew all 'worldly' activities. If nothing else, the many literary posts on this blog should provide plenty of evidence of my views in this regard!

Although it has been shown he was largely building on earlier views and insights,[i] Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria has indirectly had an enormous influence on the prevalent view of the imagination among Christians in the West today. Many Christians celebrate the imagination to a degree greater than it has ever been honoured before, and in theory would heartily concur with Coleridge’s judgement that the ‘primary Imagination’ is ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’[ii] Among Orthodox in the West, however, there are also many who will vaguely recall a much-repeated statement attributed to Fr Serapim (Rose) that the imagination is a post-lapsarian faculty, and is therefore ‘one of the lowest functions of the soul and the favorite playground of the devil’.[iii]

It may well be wondered whether Coleridge and Fr Seraphim are speaking about the same thing—whether, that is, they are using the word ‘imagination’ in the same sense. It is clear from the context of Fr Seraphim’s actual statement—i.e., ‘the use of imagination in Western spiritual systems of meditation’[iv]—that he is speaking of imagination in the sense of the ability to visualise in the mind objects that are absent or non-existent. It is with this faculty in mind that he says that the imagination is one of the lowest functions of the soul, a characterisation apparently in harmony with St John Damascene’s teaching that it belongs to ‘the irrational part of the soul’.[v] But Coleridge is well-known for having drawn a distinction between ‘Imagination’ and ‘Fancy’. The latter he defines very much in accordance with Fr Seraphim’s usage and that of the Fathers: ‘a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; . . . blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word “choice”.’[vi] It is the former of these two faculties—Imagination—that he has elevated to the rank of one component,[vii] if not the component, of the imago dei.[viii]

Fortunately, I think this problem need not concern us overly much. J.R.R. Tolkien, while sharing Coleridge’s great esteem for the imagination, corrects the latter’s typically Romantic distinction between ‘Imagination’ and ‘Fancy’, arguing that the ‘Imagination’ is only the same faculty as ‘Fancy’—‘image-making’—used with uncommon ‘vividness and strength’. Thus, although Tolkien’s theory of ‘sub-creation’—as we shall see—seems to make too much of the imagination, his definition, ‘forming mental images of things not actually present’, is identical to the Orthodox one.[ix] Indeed, it has been noted that he simply lumps together both Fancy and Imagination beneath the heading of the Greek word, Fantasy.[x] In this way, while Tolkien retains much of the Romantic reverence for the imagination, he directly identifies it with the term, as well as the definition, used in the Orthodox Tradition.

For Fr Seraphim has indeed expressed an authentic teaching of the Church in his comments about the imagination, a teaching that is found in a continuous thread in the Fathers of the Philokalia[xi] and which Fr Seraphim learned, if not directly from them, then from their faithful Russian disciples Ss Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and Theophan the Recluse.[xii] This hesychastic teaching on the imagination has been expressed perhaps most clearly by Elder Sophrony (Sakharov). In St Silouan the Athonite, the elder distinguishes three activities of the imagination with which the ‘ascetic has to contend’:[xiii] the forming of images connected with the passions, day-dreaming, and the forming of images connected with ‘the mystery of being and . . . the Divine world’.[xiv]

[i] See James Engell, The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1981).

[ii] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Elisabeth Schneider (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), p. 268. For the most extended treatment of this topic, see Dorothy Sayers’s study, The Mind of the Maker (London: Religious Book Club, 1942).

[iii] Qtd. in Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life and Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003), p. 805.

[iv] Fr Damascene, p. 805. For a brief but lucid discussion of this issue, see Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Ανατολική και Δυτική Χριστιανοσύνη, trans. Sotiris Gounelas (Athens: Armos, 2004), pp. 93-6; and to a lesser extent, his Orthodox Spirituality and the Philokalia, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), pp. 175-77.

[v] Frederic H. Chase, Jr., trans., St John of Damascus: Writings, Vol. 37 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: Catholic Universit of America, 1958), p. 241.

[vi] Coleridge, p. 268. Cf. for example, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, trans. Fr Peter A. Chamberas (NY: Paulist, 1989), pp. 146-7.

[vii] As Frank Gabelein writes in his essay, ‘Toward a Biblical View of Aesthetics’, The Christian Imagination: Essays on Literature and the Arts, ed. Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), p. 51.

[viii] For an attempt to argue for this move, see Sayers, p. 17. Unfortunately, Sayers does not explain why, in her view, the weight of patristic opinion has been entirely on the side of the various other aspects of the imago dei that she mentions.

[ix] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 138.

[x] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, rev. ed. (Kent, OH: Kent State U, 2002), pp. 24-5.

[xi] See, for instance, St Hesychios the Presbyter, ‘On Watchfulness’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 170, 182, 183, and 186-7; St Diadochos of Photiki, ‘On Spiritual Knowledge’, Philokalia 1, p. 264; St Maximos the Confessor, ‘Fifth Century of Various Texts’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, trans. G.E.H.Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1981), p. 264; and St Gregory of Sinai, ‘On Commandments and Doctrines’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1995), pp. 226 and 244.

[xii] This teaching, including the notion that the imagination originated with the Fall, is expounded at some length in St Theophan’s translation of the Αόρατος Πόλεμος of St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, which Fr Seraphim certainly read (Fr Damascene mentions that it was part of the regular reading of the fathers at Platina and quotes Fr Seraphim recommending it in three different places—Hieromonk Damascene, pp. 598, 807, 847, & 863). See St Nicodemus, ‘Chapter 26: How to correct imagination and memory’, Unseen Warfare: The Spiritual Combat & Path to Paradise of Lorenzo Scupoli edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain & revised by Theophan the Recluse, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2000), pp. 147-54.

[xiii] Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex, St Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 199), p. 154.

[xiv] Elder Sophrony, St Silouan, p. 155.


margaret said...

I am interested in Tolkien's “vividness and strength”, the idea of moral strength applied helps greatly with the problem of the good or evil of the imagination. I instinctively veer towards Fr Seraphim's definition yet, at the same time, I have read and loved Tolkien and one of the most spiritually inspiring books I have ever read was C S Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy. My life would be much the less at the moment if Lewis had not used his imagination and I find it hard to equate that use of imagination with the images produced by passions or the daydreams with which the enemy helps us idle away our God-given days. Yes, perhaps what makes it different is the exercise of moral strength.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking.

I wonder whether we should try to separate imagination from thought. Thought itself involves a process like imagination, a reordering of reality into a different form, a necessary function of the mind towards comprehension. Imagination is necessary tool for solving all problems one hasn't already solved. But like everything else in our fallen toolbox, it can also be corrupted.

David.R said...

" I basically argue that despite the potential dangers, I believe there is indeed a valid place for imaginative literature in the lives of most Orthodox Christians"

You must be pretty brave. Proving the above is quite a challenge. I can't wait to read your complete dissertation! I really like this post. I want to read more. You seem very aware of what you are up against.

You know, I'm thinking now about "The Shepherd of Hermas" as an example of the literature you may be talking about? I'm sure you can mention others. I think establishing a precedent is very important for your argument. I can't wait to see how you do that!

I wish you the best!

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

I, too, eagerly anticipate seeing more. This is a remarkably difficult area to discern and clarifying the definitions of the various terms in play is undoubtedly a daunting task.

The above reference to Hermas leads me in a somewhat different direction, to wonder what bearing your study might have on our understanding of traditional hagiography - appreciating the crafting of well-told tales of our forebears in the faith.

Thank you for sharing this, and God bless you in your continued studies!

Fr Mark

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

One more thought:

Has any of the work of Vigen Guroian been helpful to you? He's Armenian, but I find that most of his bibliographical sources are protestant or catholic. I'm thinking especially of Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination (OUP, 1998)

Fr Mark

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, all! Your comments are very stimulating, and I appreciate the kind words.

Margaret> I too am a big fan of the Inklings, and I think there is much good in their work. But when I talk about the ‘day-dreaming’ function of the imagination, what I mean is the mere act per se of our attention wandering in a world that doesn’t exist, however good it may be. My point is that although I think that in many instances good can come from this, it still comes at the expense of attention to ourselves, if only briefly. I believe that this is the point Elder Sophrony is making about this as well.

Kevin Edgecomb> You may be right about the connection between thought and imagination, but in our day the latter specifically commands more attention, and is the cause of a good deal more hyperbole, than the other. Besides, it would be beyond the scope of my thesis to get so far off into psychology as that!

David R.> The problem with the ‘Shepherd’ is that generically speaking it falls too far outside of the sort of literature I’m concerned with. Although there is certainly art involved in its composition, as an apocalypse it purports to record an historical event, and it does so in prose, lending it an even more realistic, and less aesthetic character. There is also the problem that after the 4th century, unless I am mistaken, it seems to have been largely forgotten, and so while there is not to my knowledge anything ‘heretical’ about it, it would be difficult to make the case that it is really a canonical, or at least integral, part of the Tradition.

Although I may have overlooked something and may be making a mistake in this regard, my conclusion is that there really isn’t a precedent for non-liturgical ‘Christian literature’, outside of some very devotional lyric poetry. So I’m not really trying to defend literature, ‘Christian’ or otherwise, on those grounds. Some people may be disappointed with this, while others may find it vindicating. Either way, I hope they think, ‘Well, at least he’s honest!’

Fr Mark> I have come close to hagiography at one point or another in the course of my writing (for a taste of what I mean, see this post, which I pretty much incorporated wholesale into the thesis), but it really is outside the scope of this thesis. I would love to write about hagiography as a genre sometime though! I have referred a good deal to Bakhtin and Wyschogrod, who have some very interesting things to say about hagiography. And let’s not forget the fascinating introduction to the Lives of the Saints by Fr Justin (Popovich)!

I haven’t read much of Guroian, and so have not really used him. But this point about stories awakening ‘moral imagination’ is definitely in there. It’s just that it’s only one small part of the whole thing, so I only needed to draw on a few sources in the process of that discussion. Aside from hagiography, I would also like to do more work on literature and morality, and a book like Guroian’s might come in handy that day! Thank you for pointing it out!

nothinghypothetical said...

I have been thinking about this. I cannot say what you will find, but I have always thought of imagination in two forms, one which assists the development of virtues and one that hurts them (this is even before becoming Orthodox).

The first type is simulation. Such an imaginative activity is the simulation of virtuous thoughts, "reactions" and experiences. Fiction can provide such "training" or "rehearsal" of goodness in preparation for life.

They've done visualization studies where people who vividly imagined that they were shooting basketball showed considerable improvement in actual performance.

If we read The Lord of the Rings, we simulate the noble friendship of Frodo and Samwise in our minds and thereby improve our friendship.

Though Tolkien claimed to be interested in nothing but entertaining his reader and "despised allegory" he would not ever consider writing a story where the principle characters were vile in the name of entertainment. So while LofR isn't transparently allegorical it is necessarily conducive to virtue and that fact could not have escaped the author's own notice.

The other type of imagination is sentimentality. Strangely one could misuse Tolkien's same work. Sentimentality is driven by the desire to escape reality. It is cowardly and vein. It distracts us from the challenges of life and makes us wish we could play flutes with elves under the stars on a midsummer's eve because we dislike our own life and ungrateful to the Father for what he's given us.

I know this because this was my preoccupation. I was obsessed with fantasy as a means of godhood. I could have a world as I desired it! King of all and both creator (and potential destroyer) of all I surveyed.

Most folks don't take it as far as I did, but largely I think they aren't aware of how far they take it.

I don't mean to sound like noone can read a book "for fun" without harming themselves spiritually, but such reading can be misused. Mostly I think it's worth it, particular for folks so saturated today with negative simulations. Culture is so submerged in filth that it seems especially spiritually beneficial to reinforce virtuous experience, even virtually virtuous.

I was just talking to my wife this evening about how simply watching the evening news each night seems like the world is spending an hour each day trying to convince us that all is despair and God isn't good, if He exists at all.

Our evening prayers only take 20mins! How can we expect our souls to fight such a lopsided battle? In this, like prayer, such ennobling literature is an effective weapon in the war.

I don't know what the Church father's say, but I wonder if they would say such a thing if they witnessed modern life and particularly modern media.

RJGP said...

Thanks for opening this up to a mere Anglican. I think that the area of imagination I am most interested in is where imagination fails and you have to get off your horse and walk. Then it would seem that the imagination comes into its own, you really have to work and you are open to all kinds of discoveries both good and bad. I guess this is a fundamental experience of the cleansing of the imagination by the via negative, the empty church [ R S Thomas] and the place where the religious, or some of the religious are called to be. In my work I feel called to live beyond the bounded rationalism of managerialism and also on the valency that is placed on individual imagination so prevalent in many churches. In a sense to lose sight of the edge is to lose the sense of the vulnerability of the heart.

Peter Manousos said...

May I ask what the name is of your thesis? I would love to read it.

Thank you,

Aaron Taylor said...

Hi, Peter! For some reason a few of these posts have been getting more interest in the last couple of weeks. The thesis is called 'Reading Imaginative Literature: An Study in Orthodox Moral Theology'. If you send your e-mail address, I can e-mail it to you.

Fr Deacon Aaron

Peter Manousos said...

Thank you so much Fr! My email is pman50@student.monash.edu