A Key Word

Author: Enrico Reggiani

A Key Word

Enrico Reggiani

Conference on imagination according to John Henry Newman

The term imagination entered the English language around the mid-14th century as the result of the linguistic and cultural infiltration of Old French and Anglo-Norman: its specific original meaning of "concept, mental representation, hallucination" extends in English to designate in toto the "mental faculty that shapes and manipulates images".

With some audacity, hermeneutics could trace its striking semantic evolution as follows: the Latin origin of
the noun imago brought with it a range of unlimited representative possibilities ranging from the statuesque corporeity of sculpture to the impalpability of reflection, from the portrait of a face to the ambiguity of a shadow; its etymological roots in the Latin verb imaginari confer on it an unusual operative malleability in "shaping a mental image", accentuated by the suffix which indicates action (-ation); lastly, its already vivid concreteness is further reinforced by the technical and semiotic resonance of its 13th-century Old French progenitor imaginer, employed in that language to mean "sculpt, engrave, paint, decorate, embellish".

Imagination lost no time in becoming a key word in English literature: its intellectual, aesthetic and artistic fate was consistent and extraordinary. No epoch; however, cultivated, manipulated, transformed and misinterpreted it like 19th-century Romanticism, whose major and minor protagonists invoked and employed it according to the most diverse anthropological, epistemological, religious and cultural perspectives: as attested by, e.g., Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

For William Blake (1757-1827) about whom Chesterton wrote in 1910, "no one had ever thought to shape his imagination, which was probably the greatest stroke of luck for this overlooked young man" — this faculty, as a "divine vision", could be valued only according to its own measure .and its gratuitousness overcame the contemporaneous distinction between production and consumption rooted in the teachings of Adam Smith (1723-1790). William Wordsworth (1770-1850), on the other hand, wrote about imagination in a manner which was often elusive, interweaving the 18th-century technical compositional valency with that of romanticizing the intellectual neoplatonic vision, of the power which enables the poet to "see into the life of things", nearly rediscovering in his own soul "an embryo God" and "a spark of divine fire". Finally, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who introduced it in his Biographia Literaria, is owed the famous (and often extravagant) distinction between primary imagination — the "living power" and "prime agent of all human perception" and the "repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am" — and secondary imagination an "echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the nature of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation".

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) likewise always attributed great importance to literary imagination, from his early essay, Poetry, with reference to Aristotle's Poetics (1829). According to Gerard Magill of Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, he was elaborating on the concept of a mental instrument for rational and reasonable discernment, which he used in his theological method to represent the intellectual depth of religious faith. In the course of this elaboration,. Newman skillfully avoided tht encyclopedistic mandates of 18th-century literary culture (in which field, however, he appreciated the example of Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson) as well as the subjective and egotistical imbalances of romantic literary culture (as shown by his 1885 letter to William Samuel Lilly, essayist and 'Catholic Champion', declaring "to have never read one word of Coleridge", often improperly invoked as his model).

By 1841 Newman had provided a principal and unequivocal definition of the destination of the imagination and of the instruments that it employs: "The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history and description". Not even caution in individual technical choices such as subjective impressions, current testimony, historical accounts or circumstantial descriptions is enough to prevent 'the great ingredient of poetry' from producing an unbeautiful result: as is read in the text of a lecture on poetry which Newman gave in 1849, "This again was a fault of Byron, whose imagination constantly led him into misanthropy; whereas true poetry partook of gentleness, simplicity, sweetness, and even playfulness; nay, melancholy, might exist, but never misanthropy".

For Newman, it was not important how fervid the imagination could be in the individualistic, anthropocentric or self-referential sense: given that "every faculty has its place" where there is no love for Man, even this "wonderful faculty" does not serve "the cause of truth", but "it often subserves the purposes of error — so do our most innocent affections" (Theological Papers, 1890). It loses, that is, its "living hold on truths", its ability to "pronounce by anticipation" and to "interpret what it sees around it", and to fail in its duty to supply "objects to our emotional and moral nature" and in its natural disposition to be a "principle of action" (Grammar of Assent, 1870).

Also regarding the experience of the imagination (in literature and elsewhere) and the cultural reflection of it, Newman confirms his role (strategic, monumental and as yet unexplored) as the textual and cultural classifier of the 19th-century English, Romantic and Victorian setting: these very aspects of his "most powerful thought" (Edmondo Berselli, 2004) were addressed by numerous gifted scholars in an international conference organized by the Newman Association of America. The conference, entitled "A Comparative Study of the Creative Imagination in Newman and Maritain", was held at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, from 31 July through 2 August. The hoped-for outcome of the conference was likely the same as Pope Benedict XVI expressed in reference to Newman in 2010: "Great writers and communicators of his stature and integrity are needed in the Church today; and it is my hope that devotion to him will inspire many to follow in his footsteps".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 September 2014, page 9

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