Class discussing Coleridge's notion of The Primary and Secondary Imagination, via Auden's 'Making, Knowing and Judging in The Dyer's Hand. (This is a link to John Berryman's review of it.)
So, we say, the Primary Imagination is engaged wholly, exclusively, with the 'sacred', the ineffable other that locates us as strangers yet reawakens us to our sense of being in the world. We consider whether we have had such experiences? Auden has that lovely quotation from Charles Williams where Williams asserts:
One is aware that a phenomenon being wholly itself is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from the train is the rock of all existence... Two light dancing steps by a girl appear to be what all the Schoolmen were trying to express... but two quiet steps by an old man seem like the very speech of hell. Or the other way round..
And we talk about that "the other way round" (my emphases). If that is the case, isn't all this primary imagination stuff simply nonsense? Well, no, because... because, maybe, we are talking about an entirely subjective experience; or because we are talking about figures - as Auden suggests - out of dreams, embodying the otherworldly, ominous, revelatory force of dreams, figures with a certain universality about them, if only in terms of Freud or Jung; or, if more than this, images, moments, encounters that address our need to be relocated in the world, to be assured that existence is, actually, extraordinary, and that the sheer blank power of 'significance' is a means of such relocation...
And this is all fine, and it seems most of us can own to experiences of this sort.
Then we get to the Secondary Imagination that, Auden tells us, is concerned with beauty and form, the antitheses of these terms being ugliness and, he implies: misshapenness, wrong form, form gone wrong.
This is difficult territory for the young because they are strictly brought up to be non-judgmental, or, more precisely, to abstain from pronouncing judgments. Non-judgmentalism is a potent brew of religion and etiquette. I ask if we can agree on any criteria for beauty?
Reluctance to speak.
But surely, I continue, we are continually making value judgments, are continually picking things on account of their beauty, preferring one thing over another. Granted, beauty is complex and may not be entirely skin deep, though, I add, when my eye glazes over the glossy women's magazines at the railway station newsagents I am always struck by how all of them, every darn one of them, shows me a pretty female face, with perfect retouched skin, and that these faces look much alike. A process of skin-deep selection seems to be going on, and, what is more, it clearly works, because people are buying the magazines.
How far, then, is such beauty a matter of form? How far is it a matter of Golden Sections, serpentine Lines of Beauty? Why do we get bored of Golden Sections and arabesques? Is that related to wanting the sacred experience, the products of the Primary Imagination?
And why the reluctance to talk about beauty and form, or beauty as form? We are good people. We are non-judgmental. Yet we watch The Weakest Link. We love watching contests in which people are humiliated. More than ever. And when it comes to a failure, or a crisis, what do we ask, or rather what does the radio or television interviewer ask on our behalf?
Who do you blame?
So we find someone to blame, shifting the complexities of the failure from ourselves to the one judged to be culpable. We flip our non-judgmental coins over without a second thought. We want, we damn well demand, to judge.
And I am thinking that if we were a little more honest about preferences and judgments, if we ventured them rather more, albeit in a tentative sort of way, yet with a certain willingness to argue them, we might not be quite so hypocritical, quite so savage in our hypocrisy.
Lunchtime thoughts. In the meantime, here's a pretty face to look at. Well,there will be one here once I get home. Pretty enough for you?