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The Diffluent Imagination


The diffluent imagination is another general form, but one that is
completely opposed to the foregoing. It consists of vaguely-outlined,
indistinct images that are evoked and joined according to the least
rigorous modes of association. It presents, then, two things for our
consideration--the nature of the images and of their associations.

(1) It employs neither the clear-cut, concrete, reality-penetrated
images of the plastic imagination, nor the semi-schematic
representations of the rational imagination, but those midway in that
ascending and descending scale extending from perception to conception.
This determination, however, is insufficient, and we can make it more
precise. Analysis, indeed, discovers a certain class of ill-understood
images, which I call emotional abstractions, and which are the proper
material for the diffluent imagination. These images are reduced to
certain qualities or attributes of things, taking the place of the
whole, and chosen from among the others for various reasons, the origin
of which is affective. We shall comprehend their nature better through
the following comparison:

Intellectual or rational abstraction results from the choice of a
fundamental, or at least principal, character, which becomes the
substitute for all the rest that is omitted. Thus, extension,
resistance, or impenetrability, come to represent, through
simplification and abbreviation, what we call "matter."

Emotional abstraction, on the other hand, results from the permanent or
temporary predominance of an emotional state. Some aspect of a thing,
essential or not, comes into relief, solely because it is in direct
relation to the disposition of our sensibility, with no other
preoccupation; a quality, an attribute is spontaneously, arbitrarily
selected because it impresses us at the given instant--in the final
analysis, because it somehow pleases or displeases us. The images of
this class have an "impressionist" mark. They are abstractions in the
strict sense--i.e., extracts from and simplifications of the sensory
data. They act less through a direct influence than by evoking,
suggesting, whispering; they permit a glance, a passing glimpse: we may
justly call them crepuscular or twilight ideas.

(2) As for the forms of association, the relations linking these images,
they do not depend so much on the order and connections of things as on
the changing dispositions of the mind. They have a very marked subjective
character. Some depend on the intellectual factor; the most usual are
based on chance, on distant and vacillating analogies--further down, even
on assonance and alliteration. Others depend on the affective factor and
are ruled by the disposition of the moment: association by contrast,
especially those alike in emotional basis, which have been previously
studied. (First Part, Chapter II.)

Thus the diffluent imagination is, trait for trait, the opposite of the
plastic imagination. It has a general character of inwardness because it
arises less from sensation than from feeling, often from a simple and
fugitive impression. Its creations have not the organic character of the
other, lacking a stable center of attraction; but they act by diffusion
and inclusion.


By its very nature it is de jure, if not de facto, excluded from
certain territories--if it ventures therein it produces only abortions.
This is true of the practical sphere, which permits neither vague images
nor approximate constructions; and of the scientific world, where the
imagination may be used only to create a theory or invent processes of
discovery (experiments, schemes of reasoning). Even with these
exceptions there is still left for it a very wide range.

Let us rapidly pass over some very frequent, very well-known
manifestations of the diffluent imagination--those obliterated forms in
which it does not reach complete development and cannot give the full
measure of its power.

(1) Revery and related states. This is perhaps the purest specimen of
the kind, but it remains embryonic.

(2) The romantic turn of mind. This is seen in those who, confronted by
any event whatever or an unknown person, make up, spontaneously,
involuntarily, in spite of themselves, a story out of whole cloth. I
shall later give examples of it according to the written testimony of
several people. In whatever concerns themselves or others they
create an imagined world, which they substitute for the real.

(3) The fantastic mind. Here we come away from the vague forms; the
diffluent imagination becomes substantial and asserts itself through its
permanence. At bottom this fantastic form is the romantic spirit tending
toward objectification. The invention, which was at first only a
thoroughly internal construction and recognized as such, aspires to
become external, to become realized, and when it ventures into a world
other than its own, one requiring the rigorous conditions of the
practical imagination, it is wrecked, or succeeds only through chance,
and that very rarely. To this class belong those inventors, known to
everyone, who are fertile in methods of enriching themselves or their
country by means of agricultural, mining, industrial or commercial
enterprises; the makers of the utopias of finance, politics, society,
etc. It is a form of imagination unnaturally oriented toward the

(4) The list increases with myths and religious conceptions; the
imagination in its diffuse form here finds itself on its own ground.

Depending on linguistics, it has recently been maintained that, among
the Aryans at least, the imagination created at first only momentary
gods (Augenblicksgoetter). Every time that primitive man, in the
presence of a phenomenon, experienced a perceptible emotion, he
translated it by a name, the manifestation of what was imagined the
divine part in the emotion felt. "Every religious emotion gives rise to
a new name--i.e., a new divinity. But the religious imagination is
never identical with itself; though produced by the same phenomenon, it
translates itself, at two different moments, by two different words." As
a consequence, "during the early periods of the human race, religious
names must have been applied not to classes of beings or events but to
individual beings or events. Before worshipping the comet or the
fig-tree, men must have worshiped each one of the comets they beheld
crossing the sky, every one of the fig-trees that their eyes saw."
Later, with advancing capacity for generalization, these "instantaneous"
divinities would be condensed into more consistent gods. If this
hypothesis, which has aroused many criticisms, be sound--if this state
were met with--it would be the ideal type of imaginative instability in
the religious order.

Nearer to us, authentic evidence shows that certain peoples, at given
stages of their history, have created such vague, fluid myths, that we
cannot succeed in delimiting them. Every god can change himself into
another, different, or even opposite, one. The Semitic religions might
furnish examples of this. There has been established the identity of
Istar, Astarte, Tanit, Baalath, Derketo, Mylitta, Aschera, and still
others. But it is in the early religion of the Hindoos that we perceive
best this kaleidoscopic process applied to divine beings. In the vedic
hymns not only are the clouds now serpents, now cows and later
fortresses (the retreats of dark Asuras), but we see Agni (fire)
becoming Kama (desire or love), and Indra becoming Varuna, and so on.
"We cannot imagine," says Taine, "such a great clearness. The myth here
is not a disguise, but an expression; no language is more true and more
supple. It permits a glimpse of, or rather, it causes us to discern the
forms of clouds, movements of the air, changes of seasons, all the
happenings of sky, fire, storm: external nature has never met a mind so
impressionable and pliant in which to mirror itself in all the
inexhaustible variety of its appearances. However changeable nature may
be, this imagination corresponds to it. It has no fixed gods; they are
changeable like the things themselves; they blend one into another.
Everyone of them is in turn the supreme deity; no one of them is a
distinct personality; everyone is only a moment of nature, able,
according to the apperception of the moment, to include its neighbor or
be included by it. In this fashion they swarm and teem. Every moment of
nature and every apperceptive moment may furnish one of them." Let
us, indeed, note that, for the worshiper, the god to whom he addresses
himself and while he is praying, is always the greatest and most
powerful. The assignment of attributes passes suddenly from one to the
other, regardless of contradiction. In this versatility some writers
believe they have discovered a vague pantheistic conception. Nothing is
more questionable, fundamentally, than this interpretation. It is more
in harmony with the psychology of these naive minds to assume simply an
extreme state of "impressionism," explicable by the logic of feeling.

Thus, there is a complete antithesis between the imagination that has
created the clear-cut and definite polytheism of the Greeks and that
whence have issued those fluctuating divinities that allow the
presentation of the future doctrine of Maya, of universal
illusion--another more refined form of the diffluent imagination.
Finally, let us note that the Hellenic imagination realized its gods
through anthropomorphism--they are the ideal forms of human
attributes--majesty, beauty, power, wisdom, etc. The Hindoo
imagination proceeds through symbolism: its divinities have several
heads, several arms, several legs, to symbolize limitless intelligence,
power, etc.; or better still, animal forms, as e.g., Ganesa, the god of
wisdom, with the head of the elephant, reputed the wisest of animals.

(5) It would be easy to show by the history of literature and the fine
arts that the vague forms have been preferred according to peoples,
times, and places. Let us limit ourselves to a single contemporary
example that is complete and systematically created--the art of the
"symbolists." It is not here a question of criticism, of praise, or even
of appreciation, but merely of a consideration of it as a psychological
fact likely to instruct us in regard to the nature of the diffluent

This form of art despises the clear and exact representation of the
outer world: it replaces it by a sort of music that aspires to express
the changing and fleeting inwardness of the human soul. It is the school
of the subject "who wants to know only mental states." To that end, it
makes use of a natural or artificial lack of precision: everything
floats in a dream, men as well as things, often without mark in time and
space. Something happens, one knows not where or when; it belongs to no
country, is of no period in time: it is the forest, the traveler,
the city, the knight, the wood; less frequently, even He, She,
It. In short, all the vague and unstable characters of the pure,
content-less affective state. This process of "suggestion" sometimes
succeeds, sometimes fails.

The word is the sign par excellence. As, according to the symbolists,
it should give us emotions rather than representations, it is necessary
that it lose, partially, its intellectual function and undergo a new

A principal process consists of employing usual words and changing their
ordinary acceptation, or rather, associating them in such a way that
they lose their precise meaning, and appear vague and mysterious: these
are the words "written in the depths." The writers do not name--they
leave it for us to infer. "They banish commonplaces through lack of
precision, and leave to things only the power of moving." A rose is not
described by the particular sensations that it causes, but by the
general condition that it excites.

Another method is the employment of new words or words that have fallen
into disuse. Ordinary words retain, in spite of everything, somewhat of
their customary meaning, associations and thoughts condensed in them
through long habit; words forgotten during four or five centuries
escape this condition--they are coins without fixed value.

Lastly, a still more radical method is the attempt to give to words an
exclusively emotional valuation. Unconsciously or as the result of
reflection some symbolists have come to this extreme trial, which the
logic of events imposed upon them. Ordinarily, thought expresses itself
in words; feeling, in gestures, cries, interjections, change of tone: it
finds its complete and classic expression in music. The symbolists want
to transfer the role of sound to words, to make of them the instrument
for translating and suggesting emotion through sound alone: words have
to act not as signs but as sounds: they are "musical notes in the
service of an impassioned psychology."

All this, indeed, concerns only imagination expressing itself in words;
but we know that the symbolic school has applied itself to the plastic
arts, to treat them in its own way. The difference, however, is in the
vesture that the esthetic ideal assumes. The pre-Raphaelites have
attempted, by effacing forms, outlines, semblances, colors, "to cause
things to appear as mere sources of emotion," in a word, to paint

To sum up--In this form of the diffluent imagination the emotional
factor exercises supreme authority.

May the type of imagination, the chief manifestations of which we have
just enumerated, be considered as identical with the idealistic
imagination? This question is similar to that asked in the preceding
chapter, and permits the same answer. In idealistic art, doubtless, the
material element furnished in perception (form, color, touch, effort) is
minimized, subtilized, sublimated, refined, so as to approach as nearly
as possible to a purely internal state. By the nature of its favorite
images, by its preference for vague associations and uncertain
relations, it presents all the characteristics of diffluent imagination;
but the latter covers a much broader field: it is the genus of which the
other is a species. Thus, it would be erroneous to regard the fantastic
imagination as idealistic; it has no claim to the term: on the contrary,
it believes itself adapted for practical work and acts in that

In addition, it must be recognized that were we to make a complete
review of all the forms of esthetic creation, we should frequently be
embarrassed to classify them, because there are among them, as in the
case of characters, mixed or composite forms. Here, for example, are two
kinds seemingly belonging to the diffluent imagination which, however,
do not permit it to completely include them.

(a) The "wonder" class (fairy-tales, the Thousand and One Nights,
romances of chivalry, Ariosto's poem, etc.) is a survival of the mythic
epoch, when the imagination is given free play without control or check;
whereas, in the course of centuries, art--and especially literary
creation--becomes, as we have already said, a decadent and rationalized
mythology. This form of invention consists neither of idealizing the
external world, nor reproducing it with the minuteness of realism, but
remaking the universe to suit oneself, without taking into account
natural laws, and despising the impossible: it is a liberated realism.
Often, in an environment of pure fancy, where only caprice reigns, the
characters appear clear, well-fashioned, living. The "wonder" class
belongs, then, to the vague as well as to the plastic imagination; more
or less to one or to the other, according to the temperament of the

(b) The fantastic class develops under the same conditions. Its chiefs
(Hoffmann, Poe, et al.) are classed by critics as realists. They are
such by virtue of their vision, intensified to hallucination, the
precision in details, the rigorous logic of characters and events: they
rationalize the improbable. On the other hand, the environment is
strange, shrouded in mystery: men and things move in an unreal
atmosphere, where one feels rather than perceives. It is thus proper to
remark that this class easily glides into the deeply sad, the horrible,
terrifying, nightmare-producing, "satanic literature;" Goya's paintings
of robbers and thieves being garroted; Wiertz, a genius bizarre to the
point of extravagance, who paints only suicides or the heads of
guillotined criminals.

Religious conceptions could also furnish a fine lot of examples: Dante's
Inferno, the twenty-eight hells of Buddhism, which are perhaps the
masterpieces of this class, etc. But all this belongs to another
division of our subject, one that I have expressly eliminated from this
essay--the pathology of the creative imagination.

There yet remains for us to study two important varieties that I connect
with the diffluent imagination.

Next: Numerical Imagination

Previous: The Plastic Imagination

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