Before Imagination: Embodied Thought from Montaigne to Rousseau

Before Imagination: Embodied Thought from Montaigne to Rousseau

Before Imagination: Embodied Thought from Montaigne to Rousseau

Before Imagination: Embodied Thought from Montaigne to Rousseau

Synopsis

Before imagination became the transcendent and creative faculty promoted by the Romantics, it was for something quite different. Not reserved to a privileged few, imagination was instead considered a universal ability that each person could direct in practical ways. To imagine something meant to form in the mind a replica of a thing- its taste, its sound, and other physical attributes. At the end of the Renaissance, there was a movement to encourage individuals to develop their ability to imagine vividly. Within their private mental space, a space of embodied, sensual thought, they could meditate, pray, or philosophize. Gradually, confidence in the self-directed imagination fell out of favor and was replaced by the belief that the few- an elite of writers and teachers- should control the imagination of the many.

This book seeks to understand what imagination meant in early modern Europe, particularly in early modern France, before the Romantic era gave the term its modern meaning. The author explores the themes surrounding early modern notions of imagination (including hostility to imagination) through the writings of such figures as Descartes, Montaigne, François de Sales, Pascal, the Marquise de Sévigné, Madame de Lafayette, and Fénelon.

Excerpt

Virginia Woolf begins To the Lighthouse with the description of Mrs. Ramsay’s son, looking forward to an outing to the lighthouse. “Since he belonged,” says the narrator, “even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.” Little James Ramsay is not a philosopher, nor is he an artist. When he endows the illustrated refrigerator with the joy of a future trip to the shore, he does not do, in the storyteller’s view, anything especially “creative.” But he is, within a long tradition of European culture, using his imagination. He has fused one image with another and blended one day with the idea of the following day, thus losing control of the present time. As Woolf describes this small event within the mind of her character, she conveys disapproval of the “clan” of those who create such confusions. This disapproval is entirely consonant with Stoic warnings about misuse of the impressions that flow through our minds. James Ramsay, had he been a student of Epictetus, would have known better.

And he would have known better if had grown up in the great revival of imaginative practice that occurred, concurrently with a rediscovery of Stoic philosophy, in early-modern Europe. Instead of confusing the pleasure of the lighthouse with a refrigerator, he might have used the picture with more awareness. As did a young French woman (who would later become a nun at Port-Royal under the name Geneviéve de l’Incarnation) one afternoon in 1629 when she stepped into the church of Saint Gervais in the Marais. There . . .

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