Monday 6 October 2008

Primary and Secondary - Who do you blame?

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?


Coirí Filíochta said...

In a 8 or 9C Old Irish law text called Uraicecht Becc (the small primer), which lists the seven grades from

1 - fochloc/sapling to

7 - ollamh/poetry professor,

who trained in filidecht (craft of poetry) and lists three practices which were begun in the eighth yr of poet-training when the trainee passed from the Anruth/great stream grade, to the final five yr slog on the ollamh path to final qualification in the 12 yr after the full of the traditional knowledge in 350 tales and numerous lineages, metrical forms, and a host of other data which made up the On Coimgne, (traditional tales/ancient/common knowledge) - and which it was said of:

s/he is no fili (poet) who does not preserve the traditional tales and syncronize the the ancient knowledge.


The bard schools ran unbroken for from druid times to 300 yrs ago in Scotland and Ireland, and the three practices took on from the eighth yr of training were all extemporised methods of invocation of and working within, the Primary Imagination. They are called:

1 - imbas forosnai - manifestation which enlightens

2 - tenm laida - illumination of song/breaking of the marrow

3 - dichetal do chennaib - extemporised incantation/incantation from the tips.

There is a well documented shamanic process attached to the first term in which:

The poet chews a piece of the red flesh of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door-valve, and chants an incantation over it, and offers it to idol gods, and calls them to him, and leaves them not on the morrow, and then chants over his two palms, and calls again idol gods to him, that his sleep may not be disturbed. Then he puts his two palms on his two cheeks and sleeps. And men are watching him that he may not turn over and that no one may disturb him..

...which is all a bit suspect, but the main thing is the term imbas, which means a fizz of otherworldly knowing, primary imagination heat, grasped in the abstract more than the cold intellect of reasoned thought.

The second one appears to be related to extemprised singing, and i kid you not, i have actually seen a version of this in Dublin, by a poet called Mike whose nickname is God, due to his (now shorn) habit of wearing long flowing locks and beard, like the pictoral representations of Christ.

I used to hear him at the open mic reading of paper and there was nothing about him, until one day he nervously took me to the pub, the Palace in Temple Bar where we have the annual Patrick Kavanagh Celebration - and he said:

give me a word, any word..

so i gave him one and he began extemporising and literally rapped for about 45 seconds totally made up on the spot and very very compelling. I told him this was his area of talent, as it was clear he had not had the courage to do it at the open mic, and since this time, this is his main area of expertise, often rapping in the street with Mister Incredible, another story altogether.

But it is the third which i am currently using, incantation from the tips - of the tongue, pen etc, as this practice what it is about is, like the Frost notion of turning up at the page not really knowing what will be written and once we get - to use George's analogy - skating, the pattern we make traces some true knowledge which manifests itself in the writing, and which we did not know, were unaware of prior to our starting the skate.

In the last few weeks, the mass of material i have been seiving through my head for the last seven yrs, has started to coalesce, and it is this extemporised method, a faith in the Primary Imagination association of images, words, letters, full belief if you will, trust in the shoes one shod and is wearing, dichetal do chennaib, finding the clear light switching on got God from within.


mister Cobblers

George S said...

The poet chews a piece of the red flesh of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door-valve, and chants an incantation over it, and offers it to idol gods, and calls them to him, and leaves them not on the morrow, and then chants over his two palms, and calls again idol gods to him, that his sleep may not be disturbed. Then he puts his two palms on his two cheeks and sleeps.

Amazingly enough that is precisely what I was doing just ten minutes ago... Now I seem to have woken up.

Gwil W said...

Bouzouki to Bukowski, it's all a Greek tragicomedy. We bards may pluck our lyres and sing of what we know, or don't know, or think we ought to know, under the influence of our glass of wormwood, our grain of opiate, or the howl of the madding crowd.
All the world's a page on which every scribbler may scribble out his real-dreams or his dream-dreams, primary or secondary, creating as many bardic truths and errors, for coin or otherwise, as genius, entropy or madness will allow.
By the way, when was the last time anybody, not under the influence, saw a "lonely" cloud or a "golden" daffodil? Those two women have a lot to answer for.

Anonymous said...

I WAS going to mention Kermit and Miss Piggy, but after reading the first three comments, I've come over all bashful...

George S said...

I've lost the door valve...