The necessary structures of imagination

Why do I think a good string of images — say part of a reverie from Thoreau — can reveal reality just as closely and correctly as the report a good field biologist files after scouring a meadow?

Well, maybe there’s a structure to good poetic deliveries that lies hidden, just as there’s a structure to good field-work reports.  Can I give an example of hidden structures that, once seen, give necessity and impact to a good poetic delivery?

If we excavate the hidden grammar of images we’ll uncover how they can be revelatory of the world.

First, think of the hidden grammar of a sentence that at first might seem nonsense. If I read “fish fish fish” and want to avoid the conclusion that I’ve encountered nonsense, I have to imagine a context that allows that string of words to grab hold and deliver. “Fish fish fish” might be “Fish! . . . Fish! . . . Fish!”, orders barked at the start of a fishing contest.  It might be the spontaneous glee of fishermen finally discovering a well-stocked pool.  Or it might be a language instructor repeating the word “fish” for non-English speakers working on pronunciation.  Once we have the context, there’s a necessity in the way the words grip and reveal.  We “get it” (on hearing the words) with the certitude of hearing “2+2 = 4” or “That’s a Great Heron!”

I can bring out the hidden structure of a string of words by considering a proper context for “fish fish fish”; and there’s also the matter not of context but of ‘intrinsic grammar.” I can take “fish fish fish”  to be [despite initial appearances] a perfectly formed sentence. It is a concise way of saying, “Look, listen up:  there are fish who go after other finny creatures – fish who fish fish.”   To hear the sentence is to hear the tacit but powerful grammatical necessities of a well-formed English sentence. Once we get the hang of it, we can take a more challenging word-string, initially nonsense.  We can hear “fish fish fish fish fish” as a well-formed sentence saying, “There are fish who go after other finny creatures who themselves go after finny creatures.”  A set of nonsense words or images make sense, grab onto reality in a revelation, once we grasp the hidden a priori structures [those that Cavell announced in my previous post].

Now think of the hidden grammar of a string of images in a reverie Thoreau provides. If I happen on “All intelligences awake in the morning”  I might read this in several ways, finding alternative grammars or structures underlying the words. I could read this as

–“All intelligent people awake in the morning”; or perhaps as

–“All intelligence, whether of persons or otherwise [say of trees or trout or stars] awakens with dawn”; or perhaps as

— “All (secret) messages [“intelligence”] awaken the agent receiving them into a new and unknown day.”; or perhaps as

–“Dawn brings all shining beings alive to bless us with their intelligence (their news)”

There is not a uniquely correct way to hear these word strings, but that doesn’t mean one or another or all of these can’t be a revelation. There’s no uniquely correct way to hear “fish fish fish”, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find structures that animate those words and let them sing and deliver realities.  What hidden grammars of images and image-links do I discover in that apparently simple string of words, “All intelligences awake in the morning” ?  Once I start laying them out, I realize that imagination is stronger than I might have thought — as strong as the detective’s report, or the field biologist’s. It takes digging to see this, but hey! — nothing good comes without effort.

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5 comments on “The necessary structures of imagination

  1. efmooney says:

    We are convinced by the sublimity of the reflection of distant hills (if we are) because we are prepared by prior images that gather in our reception of Thoreau’s report. The sublimity is not read off experience as a bare observation but arrives from image-sources that await activation in moments of marvel. There’s something a priori about the allure of distant hills, something more than registration of immediate empirical data. There’s a magic in reflecting waters, in the way anything shimmering draws us in, as if something that had been sleeping deep in the soul is being brought to life. Put befitting a priori images together, and a felt-necessity, an instance of poetic necessity, obtains. The allure of the reflection of distant hills in the waters, waters that also hold images of a face and a Maker, seem to speak from eternity, like the eternity of a now-perceived mathematical necessity.

    If we are convinced, if we find ourselves rapt in listening, wide-eyed, — frogs must dream as Thoreau finds them dreaming, and as he sounds out their dreaming in reverie.

    At the edge of the stream Thoreau reflects “. . . eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” There are non-causal but necessary links, poetic necessities, exposed here — between drinking and fishing, between stars and pebbles, between the depth of a stream and the depth of the heavens.

    Thoreau meant to bring out the radiant eloquence of the world. He offers endless befitting reveries and poetic evocations to that end. They perform a double service. First they shower new worlds on us, worlds that invite our inhabitation, or convince us that we already inhabit them. Second, they serve as ‘second-order’ investigations or articulations of the poetic perceptions induced by Thoreau.

    When I go slowly through the line “. . eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars,” if my ears and responses succeed, I will have undergirded those perceptions, giving them the best kind of grounding possible. The philosophical investigator listens and responds, listens for their veiled but rooted necessities in the domain of imaginative articulation and imagination-saturated life. How do we know if Thoreau’s images make sense – or instead fall out of our tolerance as utter nonsense? We’re zapped if we do, and left dead if we don’t.

    • dmf says:

      why/how necessary (and or rooted)?
      isn’t moving (phenomenologically speaking) enough and really all that one can point to?

      • efmooney says:

        Well, Kant did a lot to show how categories like causality give necessary structures to perceptions of the natural world — but that leaves the poetic and phenomenological worlds to have impact just on the basis of vivid description. That’s OK for a start, but Cavell and others (Wittgenstein, for example) bank on making the world revealed through imagination (that phenomenologists describe) no longer at risk of being less than the world science unveils. I think one can ground imaginative pictures in a way that makes them as revelatory of the world as any biologist’s report. The paragraphs to which you respond –especially the last two — are attempts to say how roots and necessity emerge, and how one can point to much more than the “pure phenomenological description.”

      • dmf says:

        don’t really grasp much of Cavell but I think that one can productively read Wittgenstein (surely not a Kantian in any strong sense but more Hegelian, no?) along the lines of Rorty’s work (via Donald Davidson) on the creation of “living” metaphors (echoes of Whitman and William James) which if they take hold than get ritualized/institutionalized/instrumentalized over time and with use. For a related take on Social Poetics (after Wittgenstein) see:
        http://pubpages.unh.edu/~jds/Beinum1.htm

  2. efmooney says:

    Yes, the authors of “Social Poetics” are on target. The very process of reconstructing a difficult set of images in Thoreau brings out the hidden grammar and the deep links to context that I discussed in “Fish-fish-fish’ — the exercise is an excavation of necessities in poetic articulations.

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