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Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


John D. Lyons on Imagination as a Concept: Montaigne, Francis of Sales, Pascal, Sévigné, Madeleine de Scudéry, Lafayette, Boileau, Fénelon, Rousseau

How does one write the history of a concept without sinking into the history of philosophy? Eugene Rice's brilliantly learned Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (Cambridge: H.U.P., 1958) remains exemplary; R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of Nature (Oxford, 1945) is another worthy model. I do not include his Idea of History here, which, though as learned and fresh today as ever, is something more than about a concept. Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being, like Maryanne Horowitz's Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge (Princeton: P.U.P., 1998) are about metaphors. Imagination is a concept.

Starting from Aristotle's and stoic thought on imagination, Lyons works out just enough of the framework of the thought to enable the reader to situate and comprehend what imagination is for Seneca, and then for Montaigne.

For Seneca, the imagination cannot be understood without presenting his ideas about freedom, and the for intérieur in which it occurs. The self may simply ignore the sights, sounds, idle thoughts, memories, etc., that traverse the mind, or may sort them, reflect on them, call up others to compare them, etc. For Seneca, some discipline or ordering is necessary to yield a sense of decorum in daily life (this approximates Rousseau's idea of sensibility), and the selecting and sorting of impressions inside the self in order to achieve a sense of freedom, and readiness for death. Imagination is thus something more than perception. Lyons summarizes:

"It is not enough then, to accept the idea of death in the abstract. It is rather the ability to act out death with one's body and mind that the Stoic requires" (p. 18)

T. Brennan, in his The Stoic Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), pp. 52ff, urges caution about not "inside" or "outside" for the stoics, but for body and mind, or body and soul. Despite my interest in this problem, and its possible importance for how Montaigne would be able to say that he is entirely in his book (a paraphrase), I want to go on.

Quintilian's thought about imagination reached back to Aristotle to consider it less important than did the stoics, and it contains an emphasis on what is not immediately perceived by the senses (p. 23). There are thoughts here that seem to be more like what the Romantics would assert ­ closer to "fantasy" and "imagination" as mental activities.

For the orator to be convincing, he must imagine every aspect of his speech and thereby have a distance or almost detachment from what it contains, so that all the techniques to convince listeners can be used. The performance or elocutio of a speech ought to receive more attention than the content. Instead of identifying with listeners, the speaker draws on his memory to create an "inner sanctuary" that enables persuasion.

In an aside in seminar one day, M. Roller remarked that stoic thought was that of a patriciate. Among the "old Romans" there was general agreement with much that can be considered Seneca's thought. This is not to mean that there were not disagreements about such themes as preparation for death, the pursuit of inner tranquility, friendship, etc., but that there were shared attitudes that Epictetus and Seneca sharpened, pondered, and formalized in their writings. Elements of this shared outlook appear in the writings of the early church fathers, but there are other thoughts, concepts, and even ways of thinking that would come together in synthesis as Christian thought. Lyons refers to Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1998), a work I have not read.

The recovery of ancient thought in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, notably rhetoric and stoic thought, thanks to critical editions and printing, "fostered a sense of direct contact with the great minds of ancient Greece and Rome" (p. 31). Lyons explores the place of the imagination in Montaigne's thought, and he finds it to be grounded on a profound understanding of stoic thought. Imagination permits humans to perceive all that is in the external world, the present, past, and future. Imagination is what separates us from other animals, and it "affects" every aspect of the functioning of our bodies. Montaigne seems to say that some individuals have more of it that others (or that it is stronger or weaker in different individuals), and that he believed himself to be "very much influenced by it" (p. 46). The more we have of it, the more likely to dwell on the past. Humans can and do imagine what is unknown. like Seneca, however, Montaigne does not seem fascinated by the future, though he does not think it to be something almost evil. The ability to perceive visual images as objects, to "manage" these by comparing them, storing them, reflecting on them, is for Montaigne part of all the experience we have as Knowing. Unwilling to create a separate or distinctly confining definition from over-precision, Montaigne left his general sense of imagination to enable the individual in freedom to construct the arrière boutique of the self that could be recovered, modified, enriched by reading and experience. After spending some years imagining his own death as essentially the stoic preparation for it, he may have practiced less this quite uni-directional imagining.

Seneca's imagination permitted him to collect and to order recoverable images, associations, and memories in a kind of mental space. Montaigne's inner solitude or arrière boutique may have began as a mental locus permitting him to imagine his own death, but over the years it became a source of enormous satisfaction to him in his very being. "True solitude" does not require a special physical space for the self, but as I tried to show years ago in the "Refuges de l'Intime" (Histoire de la vie privé, III), certain spaces ­ the cabinet, the garden, the ruelle ­ facilitated reflection in the space Montaigne calls the "back shop."

And while imagination is not the truth, it is a vehicle for it; nor is it a vehicle of falsehood (p. 57). Imagined things come in, which then, through reason, may become truthful. As an introduction to the chapter on St. Francis of Sales, Lyons draws on the 1595 edition of the Essays about solitude and the imagination for someone seeking religious meditation. Lyons says that "one detects that is not Montaigne's own choice" (p. 59). I wish Lyons had been more probing here. In the paragraph that precedes that observation, he presents a critique of the man who, while letting go of everything, does not abandon his plans, including his striving for solitude and his plans for the future. The paragraph that follows is about the pleasures of reading and studying ­ a thought worthy of Augustine's pursuit of every guise of vanity, and a prelude to divertissement in Pascal. Lyons must be right. He is inferring from a reading of the work as a whole. But the Fideism of this passage is striking:

"The imagination of those who seek solitude for religious reasons, filling their hearts with the certainty of divine promises for other life, is much more sane and consistent. They set before their eyes God, an object infinite both in goodness and in power; in him the soul has the wherewithal to satisfy its desires abundantly in complete freedom [....] And he who can really and constantly kindle his soul with the flame of that living faith and hope, builds himself in solitude a life that is voluptuous and delightful beyond any other life."

And in the words that Lyons deleted: "only this one goal of another life, happily immortal, rightly deserves that we abandon the comforts and pleasures of this life of ours" (Frame transl., p. 180).

 The advice to turn to Cato, Phocian, and Aristede comes for those who go off the track. Montaigne is so often harshly negative about exemplarity, but here he recommends it. The three exemplary Greco-Romans are morally incorrupt but suffer defeat and ostracism. The active civic life is one that may lead to pain and death, as well as heroic glory; but Montaigne would probably not have held up the exemplary civic life to be emulated to the point of ostracism and death. Death in battle is something else. How could the pursuit of stoic tranquility of soul be furthered by contemplating these three ­ virtuous beyond measure but rejected by their fellows? Are they Christ-like? Montaigne is rejecting stoicism? Montaigne deepening a stoical stance? Job.

The discussion of St Francis of Sales's devotional works reveals Christianized stoic notions of the imagination. As in Montaigne, the activity of the imagination is extraordinarily rich ­ even grandiose ­ especially for Francis when it is coupled with the will. To be sure, Sales asks the reader to imagine how his own body may be more well than that of someone who is more worthy (p. 68), and he asks us to imagine Hell as well the "Savior of his sacred humanity," just as one might a friend. As for the stoic, the physical presence by the image is physical presence ­ for the soul. The will must be strengthened as we create a spiritual interior that is ours alone, and thereby we can overcome appetites. The images of human sexuality must not be allowed to come up "on the screen" (my phrase), except for procreation. Lyons sums up Josué Harari's writing about the similarities between the erotic imagination in Sade, and Francis's idea of spiritual transcendence by absolute mastery of the imagination. Any and all that is not productive of union with the divine must be eliminated. The truly absolute erotic and the blessed are in the mind ­ easier, one might say for Sade, thanks to cartesian dualism. For Francis of Sales, wasn't the soul still more or less throughout the whole body? Aristotle. Just what was in Montaigne's arrière boutique late in life we cannot absolutely ascertain; but in Francis's intérieur there was the fully imagined physical Christ of the Resurrection.

Before turning to the chapter on Pascal, a word about vocabulary. When Jeanne des Anges showed her "signes de sortie" of evidence of diabolical possession, Lyons translates the expression as "exit marks" (p. 90). This seems fine; but on reflection, there is the whole question of which words were used to signify what comes out of the body, and what goes into it. Cropper and Dempsey have important comments on the word "expression." It is something that comes out of the body ­ that is pressed out, as it were! It's as simple as that; and "impression" may be something that goes into it; or it may be something else, such as the impresa portrait of Alberti that is a casting from a mold. "Marks," as in Bodin's marks of sovereignty, are pushed into the body politic, so signes makes sense here as evidence of something coming out. ("Exit marks" is something of a semantic mongrel.) I seem so pedantic here, but what goes in and out of the body, or any other object, was of philosophical import in the seventeenth century. Asmodée thus really made "impressions of impurity in my imagination" (p. 91).

And notice the anachronism. I have not been faithful to Ann Hartle's work on Montaigne's imaginative powers. she is careful not to quantify these powers, but I did so, in so many words, above. The quantifying is a present-ist trap! For Montaigne, it is not mainly how much or how strong an imagination one has, but the imagination you have that is yours, and only yours!
The frame for Pascal is his distinction between esprit géométrique and esprit de finesse. Lyons succinctly characterizes both ­ so very honestly ­ before moving on to what the latter represented in Pascal's thought. The whole always had to be kept in mind; breaking a problem into its parts (cartesian) had only quite narrow uses for Pascal. It is the imagination, in sum, with all its power, that permits the person to "see exactly what is before his eyes." Seeing the obvious may be so difficult: is not the formula for measuring the mass of a cone really quite simple?

This is not the place to raise the question of Descartes's aims, in his work, to distinguish the body from the mind; but it bears on where the imagination is. I quote D. Deschene: "The imagination [for Descartes] or phantasia is, after all, itself a 'genuine real body, extended and figured,' to which the mind applies itself when it imagines," Physologia; Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought (Ithaca, 1996), p. 346. Pascal's idea of the "body as a machine, that is formed by custom" (Lyons, p. 115) in such a way that the soul "finds number, time, dimensions; it reasons in terms of these things" that have arrived there, seemingly through the senses and can thus be considered part of the imagination that is governed by the will. There is an emphasis on wholeness and vastness that must be borne in mind, as only wholeness can yield some understanding. And the imagination must be trained!

Richelieu almost died in Tarascon. He could not write his own will, which begins: "lorsque mon âme sera séparée de mon corps." There was custom, doctrine, and theological training beneath this choice of words. Would he have accepted an imagined view of the moment resembling so many death scenes in which a miniature person, the soul, flies from the body and navigates between the devil and the angel? Was it Descartes's work that brought the Western world to think of (or imagine) the brain as co-terminus with the soul?

As Primrose Ariès lay dying, Philippe read her the letters of Mme de Sévigné. Are these letters a variant of the genre, the art of dying? Their author found a kind of spiritual place in religious thought ­ Augustine and Nicole ­ not in philosophy. Her letters to her daughter breath life into, and through, thought about death, just as Ariès proposes in L'Homme devant la mort (Paris: Seuil, 1977). I shall not gloss John Lyons's chapter on Sévigné's imagining death from the model proposed by Ariès, but this could have some interesting results. So many great seventeenth-century thinkers underwent religious conversions (I think of the work of Susan Rosa: brilliant) and refracted Augustinian existential piety in their writings, formally as in La Rochefoucauld, and casually but intensely as in Sévigné ­ and Racine in his letters to his son.)

How did this "mort de soi" different from a death grounded on the readings of Francis of Sales or Alacoque? Perhaps it did not. So much in Sévigné seems "typical" for the period, except for the brilliance of her prose. Does the great writer merely elaborate and intensify the general cultural sensibility of her age? Sévigné's rejection of philosophy, as Lyons remarks, did not mean that she was not a philosopher. Sévigné found love and spiritual solace in imagining her daughter's past, her present, and her future (?) ­ as if she thought the mother might be redeemed or called to God for seeking the pain and anxiety that accompanied the imagined love. Of course it was her own death that she imagined and shared with her daughter, just as Racine did with his son. (See my "Fathers and Sons" in the Essay section of this site.) A presence through imagining her in her room or on a familiar walk ­ all "refuges de l'intime" ­ like Diderot imagining the emotion that would be felt, after his death, when those who loved him saw his empty chair. But to firm up this discussion, a quotation from Lyons:

"Sévigné's originality lies more in her particular way of allying imagination of the present and imagination of the absent so that the vivid representation of sensory experience becomes the source of consciousness of absence (p. 129)."

Original because every being is original, but the imagined experience belongs to a general devotional current that may be found in other laments, and that will flourish again in the early nineteenth century and beyond. The Guérins come to mind.

As Sévigné writes:

"I love passionately [note the body physical here] your letters from Avignon, my dear. I read and reread them. They rejoice my imagination and the silence of the woods ..." (p. 128).

And like so many others, Turenne's death creates spiritual turmoil in her: she can only interpret the surprise, the precision of the cannon shot as providential. It is interesting to note her precise definition of divine forethought. This death was programmed from the beginning of time (like friendship in Paulin of Nola). This is her version of the disaster of Lisbon (Voltaire) and the catastrophic bombing of Saint-Gervais in World War I, when a single Big Bertha struck the church during a solemn high mass.

I like Jacqueline Duchêne's work on the Sévignés. She discerned a relationship between Madame de Grignan's illnesses and her mother's visits. Because it is so loving and religious, Sévigné's love for her daughter cannot be called abusive, but ... when Sévigné's time for her own departure came, she refused to let her daughter attend her or give her solace. A little essay turns around in my head about why, but it would clutter here.

I had to read twice the chapter on Madame de Scudéry and Madame de Lafayette, before grasping how profound and interesting it is. Fiction is always a stretch for me. Scudéry explores the meaning of imagination to establish that it is in both men and women. In Clélie, Tarquin seems to be a chameleon, not just showing one or another aspect of his character but actually changing his behavior and, of course, imagining what the pious, the libertin, and the philosopher would expect to hear from him. His is a "prudence si nuisible" (p. 156). By contrast, his wife, Tullie, has a simple, entirely one-directed personality, of superiority. The results from them both are "cruelty beyond anything that imagination can conceive" (p. 157). So the particular discipline of the imaginations yields extraordinary non-socially-accepted conduct. The imagination permits or facilitates this, but it is the particular enargeia that accounts for individual differences. The mental trysts into which Brutus and Lucretia get themselves, thanks to their synchronized imaginations, also re-state much older notions of the imagination ­ as in Montaigne ­ with objects such as letters sustaining the imagination. And the release may occur in and through writing!

Lafayette uses the word imagination in La Princesse de Clèves thirty-one times, with it being reflexive twenty-four times. It is almost as if the point of departure is that all is imagined, and with that, silence or imagining without using the word, becomes the relief that permits the body to speak through signs such as a blush or a sigh ­ a body-speak at once clear yet abstract. There is a casuistry of imagination here, so complete and intentional. The heroine imagines herself as her lover imagines her on seeing her (p. 173). And instead of concentrating the imagination on the future or the past ­ or even on the visible, obvious level of manners ­ it is obsessively centered on observing and imagining body signs. Cruel reality interferes. Lyons concludes that Lafayette's characters lack imagination in the sense of reaching beyond the love cycle. But isn't that the point of the up-dated chivalric romance, the powerlessness of the soul when love, as imagined, pervades the body? I had admired Lafayette's achievements for years. Now Lyons help understand her greatness to the point of awe.

The last chapter has a paradoxical title: "How the ancients modernized imagination." There is discussion of Boileau on the sublime, and Fénelon and Rousseau on the imagination. Longinus, as interpreted by Boileau, offers a characterization of how and in what circumstances speech produces a deeper emotional moment than can an image, in certain circumstances, especially classical republican; for monarchy dulls eloquence by its collective domination. Here the orator's imagination is important: he must be composed and cool, in order to use the rhetorical technique that will inflame an audience's imagination (p. 185). Quintilian's thought comes down to pretty much the same here: the orator is a master at stimulating the imaginations of others. In this view, there is always an air of condescension toward the listener. The orator must not only be cool, he must also believe himself to be superior and, if not godly, at least inspired. The audience possesses the imagination, and that imagination can be moved.

Fénelon, in a tradition about childhood immaturity found way back in the mirrors of princes (see Paul Saenger's thesis), considers the imagination as undeveloped. The result is particular attention to the child's moods, tones of voice, and perhaps confidence, in order to teach the imagination and effectively shape it. An aim is to "tell things so well that you believed you saw them" (p. 191). As in Rousseau as well, and of course in the Jesuit collèges, the young have more intense imaginations than the old. Ancien that he is, Fénelon still finds the imagination inferior to reason.

John Lyons's close reading of Emile on the imagination explicates what are, for Rousseau, the senses, imagination, experience, and sensibility. The latter is an old concept, and it has attracted much attention from historians of literature.

A child possesses senses and imagination. As he/she matures, and has had the world carefully filtered, sensibility develops, grounded on experienced imagination. Sensibility becomes the perceptual moral grid through which the young adult, and eventually all adults, evaluate the social, and act. There are always individual influences or proclivities, but there is more generally the "attitude" toward the peuple, for example, or toward sex. A disciplined imagination, a moral so worked-out by autobiographical "history" that the person can scarcely act outside it.

On reflection, Lyons's account of the relations between imagination and sensibility in Rousseau is clear and convincing, a breakthrough. Christopher Kelly's Rousseau's Exemplary Life (Ithaca, 1987) remains very suggestive and thoughtful. I wish that Lyons had commented on it. At times Kelly seems to offer an analysis that is clear and certain, but that might have been more coherent if attention had been given to the concept sensibility.

Lyons asks where this notion could have come from; but having proposed Pascal and Jansenist moral thought, he does not pursue the question. The results might have been very interesting if he had. And Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility comes inevitably into this writer's imagination. Elinor and Marianne are imagined as incarnating Rousseau's thought.

In Jesuit pedagogical literature there is a mortal fear that a child might see evil or read something that would inflame his imagination. Lisa Graham notes:

"Another distinguishing feature of the mauvais sujet was an unregulated or overexcited imagination. The word imagination recurs throughout police reports as a descriptive and analytical term directly associated with criminal behavior" (If the King Only Knew [Charlottesville: U. of V. Press, 2000], p. 43).

It would be presumptuous to ask for more in what is already such an interesting book; but I wish a bit more attention had been paid to the adjectives used to describe the imagination. It is evident throughout that it is the will that changes in quantity, as it disciplines the imagination; but, as already noted, Lyons uses the word "strong." Strong-weak (p. 36); a lot of, ... a little. perhaps all that had to be noted was the absence of those adjectives that today fill so many letters of recommendation for students whenever imagination ­ always positive ­ is brought up. Saying what something is not, is helpful when there is such a shift in meanings over the centuries.

* * *

It seems churlish to note editorial issues at all, but if one does not, then editors seem to have no role at all in this day of electronic copy.

The pagination seems consistently off by one page, when notes are mentioned in the Index. For example, sensus communis is on p. 213, note 10, not p. 212.
p. 20, l. 9: it is his character
p. 44, l. 6: course of his life
p. 126: the use of vous is not particularly aristocratic here, it is characteristic of all letter-writing of the period. (It is aristocratic in Renoir's La Grande Illusion.)
p. 130: R. Racevskis, in Time and Ways of Knowing (Lewisburg, 2003), has interesting things to say about Sévigné and time. Obviously, university-press publishing is so slow in this country that Lyons probably could not have taken it into account. His acknowledgment is undated. True, Racevskis is drawing on R. Duchêne, and acknowledges it.
p. 141, l. 5: cannon
p. 181: neither the Stanford Press nor Lyons received help here. The discussion is about Horace, and the play cited is Le Cid. what writer has not made this type of slip? Critics and proofreaders have a duty to catch them.
p. 186: the same here: the Duc de Bourgogne was Louis XIV's grandson, not his second son.
p. 196: "excessively imaginative," see above. Here there is almost a moral perspective.
p. 238: Lyons is certainly correct to point out the frequent absence of Pascal in general books about seventeenth-century French literature. Mathematics, philosophy, theology, and polemic have not easily been integrated into studies of the fictional. Note how it has taken a Jesuit to elucidate the philosophical in the writings of some major salonnières, that is, J.J. Conley, The Suspicion of Virtue (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002), a wonderfully learned book.
Corneille is not in the Index.
Lyons has proven that he did not need to cite Mark Morford (his colleague!), Stoics and Neostoics (Princeton: PUP, 1991), but Morford's is such a superb book on the subject that I "imagine" readers (I may not have any!) would want to know about it.