On the back cover of Arabesques -- Anton Shammas's fine and difficult novel about the politics of memory, language, and identity between Palestine and Israel -- one finds among the enthusiastic notices the following excerpt from a review in the Seattle Times Post: Arabesques, writes Richard Wakefield, "is a triumph of the healing power of the imagination over the fragmenting force of politics."
The remark does not address the role of the imagination in Romantic, discourse, nor does it tell us anything interesting about the role of the imagination in contemporary literature or culture. And readers of Arabesques will note immediately how the remark misses everything at stake in Shammas's compelling novel. But I preface my study with such a passage because of its value as a symptom: it demonstrates the tenacious purchase that the inherited notion of the imagination continues to maintain on our models of culture, interpretation, and evaluation. The imagination is often taken without question by the journalist or critic or teacher to be the guiding principle of literary production. Few received ideas of literary history have become more inflated by the nature of their circulation or have had a more mystifying effect than the "imagination," but its persistence as received idea is precisely a testimony to its ideological force, in this instance as a "healing power," as an agent of meaning and redemption.