The Mystic Imagination
Mystic imagination deserves a place of honor, as it is the most complete
and most daring of purely theoretic invention. Related to diffluent
imagination, especially in the latter's affective form, it has its own
special characters, which we shall try to separate out.
Mysticism rests essentially on two modes of mental life--feeling, which
we need not study; and imagination, which, in the present instance,
represents the intellectual factor. Whether the part of consciousness
that this state of mind requires and permits be imaginative in nature
and nothing else it is easy to find out. Indeed, the mystic considers
the data of sense as vain appearances, or at the most as signs revealing
and frequently laying bare the world of reality. He therefore finds no
solid support in perception. On the other hand, he scorns reasoned
thought, looking upon it as a cripple, halting half-way. He makes
neither deductions nor inductions, and does not draw conclusions after
the method of scientific hypotheses. The conclusion, then, is that he
imagines, i.e., that he realizes a construction in images that is for
him knowledge of the world; and he never proceeds, and does not proceed
here, save ex analogia hominis.
The root of the mystic imagination consists of a tendency to incarnate
the ideal in the sensible, to discover a hidden "idea" in every material
phenomenon or occurrence, to suppose in things a supranatural principle
that reveals itself to whoever may penetrate to it. Its fundamental
character, from which the others are derived, is thus a way of thinking
symbolically; but the algebraist also thinks by means of symbols, yet
is not on that account a mystic. The nature of this symbolism must,
then, be determined.
In doing so, let us note first of all that our images--understanding the
word "image" in its broadest sense--may be divided into two distinct
(1) Concrete images, earliest to be received, being representations of
greatest power, residues of our perceptions, with which they have a
direct and immediate relation.
(2) Symbolic images, or signs, of secondary acquirement, being
representations of lesser power, having only indirect and mediate
relations with things.
Let us make the differences between the two clear by a few simple
Concrete images are: In the visual sphere, the recollection of faces,
monuments, landscapes, etc.; in the auditory sphere, the remembrance of
the sounds of the sea, wind, the human voice, a melody, etc.; in the
motor sphere, the tossings one feels when resting after having been at
sea, the illusions of those who have had limbs amputated, etc.
Symbolic images are: In the visual order, written words, ideographic
signs, etc.; in the auditory order, spoken words or verbal images; in
the motor order, significant gestures, and even better, the
finger-language of deaf-mutes.
Psychologically, these two groups are not identical in nature. Concrete
images result from a persistence of perceptions and draw from the latter
all their validity; symbolic images result from a mental synthesis, from
an association of perception and image, or of image and image. If they
have not the same origin, no more do they disappear in the same way, as
is proven by very numerous examples of aphasia.
The originality of mystic imagination is found in this fact: It
transforms concrete images into symbolic images, and uses them as such.
It extends this process even to perceptions, so that all manifestations
of nature or of human art take on a value as signs or symbols. We shall
later find numerous examples of this. Its mode of expression is
necessarily synthetic. In itself, and because of the materials that it
makes use of, it differs from the affective imagination previously
described; it also differs from sensuous imagination, which makes use
of forms, movements, colors, as having a value of their own; and from
the imagination developing in the functions of words, through an
analytic process. It has thus a rather special mark.
Other characters are related to this one of symbolism, or else are
derived from it, viz.:
(1) An external character: the manner of writing and of speaking, the
mode of expression, whatever it is. "The dominant style among mystics,"
says von Hartmann, "is metaphorical in the extreme--now flat and
ordinary, more often turgid and emphatic. Excess of imagination betrays
itself there, ordinarily, in the thought and in the form in which that
is rendered.... A sign of mysticism which it has been believed may often
be taken as an essential sign, is obscurity and unintelligibility of
language. We find it in almost all those who have written." We might
add that even in the plastic arts, symbolists and "decadents" have
attempted, as far as possible, methods that merely indicate and suggest
or hint instead of giving real, definite objects: which fact makes them
inaccessible to the greater number of people.
This characteristic of obscurity is due to two causes. First, mystical
imagination is guided by the logic of feeling, which is purely
subjective, full of leaps, jerks, and gaps. Again, it makes use of the
language of images, especially visual images--a language whose ideal is
vagueness, just as the ideal of verbal language is precision. All this
can be summed up in a phrase--the subjective character inherent in the
symbol. While seeming to speak like everyone else, the mystic uses a
personal idiom: things becoming symbols at the pleasure of his fancy, he
does not use signs that have a fixed and universally admitted value. It
is not surprising if we do not understand him.
(2) An extraordinary abuse of analogy and comparison in their various
forms (allegory, parable, etc.)--a natural consequence of a mode of
thinking that proceeds by means of symbols, not concepts. It has been
said, and rightly, that "the only force that makes the vast field of
mysticism fruitful is analogy." Bossuet, a great opponent of
mystics, had already remarked: "One of the characteristics of these
authors is the pushing of allegories to the extreme limit." With warm
imagination, having at their disposal overexcited senses, they are
lavish of changes of expressions and figures, hoping thereby to explain
the world's mysteries. We know to what inventive labors the Vedas, the
Bible, the Koran, and other sacred books have given rise. The
distinction between literal and figurative sense, which is boundlessly
arbitrary, has given commentators a freedom to imagine equal to that of
All this is yet very reasonable; but the imagination left to itself
stops at no extravagance. After having strained the meaning of
expressions, the imaginative mind exercises itself on words and letters.
Thus, the cabalists would take the first or the last letters of the
words composing a verse, and would form with them a new word which was
to reveal the hidden meaning. Again, they would substitute for the
letters composing words the numbers that these letters represent in the
Hebrew numerical system and form the strangest combinations with them.
In the Zohar, all the letters of the alphabet come before God, each
one begging to be chosen as the creative element of the universe.
Let us also bring to mind numerical mysticism, different from numerical
imagination heretofore studied. Here, number is no longer the means that
mind employs in order to soar in time and space; it becomes a symbol and
material for fanciful construction. Hence arise those "sacred numbers"
teeming in the old oriental religions:--3, symbol of the trinity; 4,
symbol of the cosmic elements; 7, representing the moon and the planets,
etc. Besides these fantastic meanings, there are more complicated
inventions--calculating, from the letters of one's name, the years of
life of a sick person, the auspices of a marriage, etc. The Pythagorean
philosophy, as Zeller has shown, is the systematic form of this
mathematical mysticism, for which numbers are not symbols of
quantitative relations, but the very essence of things.
This exaggerated symbolism, which makes the works of mystics so fragile,
and which permits the mind to feed only on glimpses, has nevertheless an
undeniable source of energy in its enchanting capacity to suggest.
Without doubt suggestion exists also in art, but much more weakly, for
reasons that we shall indicate.
(3) Another characteristic of mystic imagination is the nature and the
great degree of belief accompanying it. We already know that when
an image enters consciousness, even in the form of a recollection, of a
purely passive reproduction, it appears at first, and for a moment, just
as real as a percept. Much more so, in the case of imaginative
constructions. But this illusion has degrees, and with mystics it
attains its maximum.
In the scientific and practical world, the work of the imagination is
accompanied by only a conditional and provisional belief. The
construction in images must justify its existence, in the case of the
scientist, by explaining; and in the case of the man of affairs, by
being embodied in an invention that is useful and answers its purpose.
In the esthetic field, creation is accompanied by a momentary belief.
Fancy, remarks Groos, is necessarily joined to appearance. Its special
character does not consist merely in freedom in images; what
distinguishes it from association and from memory is this--that what is
merely representative is taken for the reality. The creative artist has
a conscious illusion (bewusste Selbsttaeuschung): the esthetic
pleasure is an oscillation between the appearance and the reality.
Mystic imagination presupposes an unconditioned and permanent belief.
Mystics are believers in the true sense--they have faith. This character
is peculiar to them, and has its origin in the intensity of the
affective state that excites and supports this form of invention.
Intuition becomes an object of knowledge only when clothed in images.
There has been much dispute as to the objective value of those symbolic
forms that are the working material of the mystic imagination. This
contest does not concern us here; but we may make the positive statement
that the constructive imagination has never obtained such a frequently
hallucinatory form as in the mystics. Visions, touch-illusions, external
voices, inner and "wordless" voices, which we now regard as psycho-motor
hallucinations--all that we meet every moment in their works, until they
become commonplace. But as to the nature of these psychic states there
are only two solutions possible--one, naturalistic, that we shall
indicate; the other, supernatural, which most theologians hold, and
which regards these phenomena as valid and true revelation. In either
case, the mystic imagination seems to us naturally tending toward
objectification. It tends outwardly, by a spontaneous movement that
places it on the same level as reality. Whichever conclusion we adopt,
no imaginative type has the same great gift of energy and permanence in
Mystic imagination, working along the lines peculiar to it, produces
cosmological, religious, and metaphysical constructions, a summary
exposition of which will help us understand its true nature.
(1) The all-embracing cosmological form is the conception of the world
by a purely imaginative being. It is rare, abnormal, and is nowadays met
with only in a few artists, dreamers, or morbidly esthetic persons, as a
kind of survival and temporary form. Thus, Victor Hugo sees in each
letter of the alphabet the pictured imitation of one of the objects
essential to human knowledge: "A is the head, the gable, the
cross-beam, the arch, arx; D is the back, dos; E is the
basement, the console, etc., so that man's house and its architecture,
man's body and its structure, and then justice, music, the church, war,
harvesting, geometry, mountains, etc.--all that is comprised in the
alphabet through the mystic virtue of form." Even more radical is
Gerard de Nerval (who, moreover, was frequently subject to
hallucinations): "At certain times everything takes on for me a new
aspect--secret voices come out of plant, tree, animals, from the
humblest insects, to caution and encourage me. Formless and lifeless
objects have mysterious turns the meaning of which I understand." To
others, contemporaries, "the real world is a fairy land."
The middle ages--a period of lively imagination and slight rational
culture--overflowed in this direction. "Many thought that on this earth
everything is a sign, a figure, and that the visible is worth nothing
except insofar as it covers up the invisible." Plants, animals--there is
nothing that does not become subject for interpretation; all the members
of the body are emblems; the head is Christ, the hairs are the saints,
the legs are the apostles, the eye is contemplation, etc. There are
extant special books in which all that is seriously explained. Who does
not know the symbolism of the cathedrals, and the vagaries to which it
has given rise? The towers are prayer, the columns the apostles, the
stones and the mortar the assembly of the faithful; the windows are the
organs of sense, the buttresses and abutments are the divine assistance;
and so on to the minutest detail.
In our day of intense intellectual development, it is not given to many
to return sincerely to a mental condition that recalls that of the
earliest times. Even if we come near it, we still find a difference.
Primitive man puts life, consciousness, activity, into everything;
symbolism does likewise, but it does not believe in an autonomous,
distinct, particular soul inherent in each thing. The absence of
abstraction and generalization, characteristic of humanity in its early
beginnings, when it peoples the world with myriads of animate beings,
has disappeared. Every source of activity revealed by symbols appears
as a fragmentary manifestation; it descends from a single primary,
personal or impersonal, spring. At the root of this imaginative
construction there is always either theism or pantheism.
(2) Mystical imagination has often and erroneously been identified with
religious imagination. Although it may be held that every religion, no
matter how dull and poor, presupposes a latent mysticism, because it
supposes an Unknown beyond the reach of sense, there are religions very
slightly mystical in fact--those of savages, strictly utilitarian; among
barbarians, the martial cults of the Germans and the Aztecs; among
civilized races, Rome and Greece. However, even though the mystic
imagination is not confined to the bounds of religious thought, history
shows us that there it attains its completest expansion.
To be brief, and to keep strictly within our subject, let us note that
in the completely developed great religions there has arisen opposition
between the rationalists and the imaginative expounders, between the
dogmatists and the mystics. The former, rational architects, build by
means of abstract ideas, logical relations and methods, by deduction and
induction; the others, imaginative builders, care little for this
learned magnificence--they excel in vivid creations because the moving
energy with them is in their feelings, "in their hearts;" because they
speak a language made up of concrete images, and consequently their
wholly symbolic speech is at the same time an original construction. The
mystic imagination is a transformation of the mythic imagination, the
myth changing into symbols. It cannot escape the necessity of this. On
the other hand, the affective states cannot longer remain vague,
diffuse, purely internal; they must become fixed in time and space, and
condensed into images forming a personality, legend, event, or rite.
Thus, Buddha represents the tendencies towards pity and resignation,
summing up the aspirations for final rest. On the other hand, abstract
ideas, pure concepts, being repugnant to the mystic's nature, it is also
necessary that they take on images through which they may be seen--e.g.,
the relations between God and man, in the various forms of
communion; the idea of divine protection in incarnations, mediators,
etc. But the images made use of are not dry and colorless like words
that by long use have lost all direct representative value and are
merely marks or tags. Being symbolic, i.e., concrete, they are, as we
have seen, direct substitutes for reality, and they differ as much from
words as sketching and drawing differ from our alphabetical signs, which
are, however, their derivatives or abbreviations.
It must, however, be noted that if "the mystic fact is a naive effort to
apprehend the absolute, a mode of symbolic, not dialectic, thinking,
that lives on symbols and finds in them the only fitting
expression," it seems that this imaginative phase has been to some
minds only an internal form, for they have attempted to go beyond it
through ecstacy, aspiring to grasp the ultimate principle as a pure
unity, without image and without form, which metaphysical realism
hopes to attain by other methods and by a different route. However
interesting they may be for psychology, these attempts, luring one on
further and further, by their seeming or real elimination of every
symbolic element, become foreign to our subject, and we cannot consider
them at greater length here.
(3) "History shows that philosophy has done nothing but transform ideas
of mystic production, substituting for the form of images and
undemonstrated statements the form of assertions of a rational
system." This declaration of a metaphysician saves us from dwelling
on the subject long.
When we seek the difference between religious and metaphysical or
philosophical symbolism, we find it in the nature of the constitutive
elements. Turned in the direction of religion, mystic symbolism
presupposes two principal elements--imagination and feeling; turned in
a metaphysical direction, it presupposes imagination and a very small
rational element. This substitution involves appreciable deviation
from the primitive type. The construction is of greater logical
regularity. Besides, and this is the important characteristic, the
subject-matter--though still resembling symbolic images--tends to
become concepts: such are vivified abstractions, allegorical beings,
hereditary entities of spirits and of gods. In short, metaphysical
mysticism is a transition-form towards metaphysical rationalism,
although these two tendencies have always been inimical in the history
of philosophy, just as in the history of religion.
In this imaginative plan of the world we may recognize stages according
to the increasing weakness of the systems, depending on the number and
quality of the hypotheses. For example, the progression is apparent
between Plotinus and the frenzied creations of the Gnostics and the
Cabalists. With the latter, we come into a world of unbridled fancy
which, in place of human romances, invents cosmic romances. Here appear
the allegorical beings mentioned above, half concept, half symbol; the
ten Sephiros of the Cabala, immutable forms of being; the syzygies or
couples of Gnosticism--soul and reflection, depth and silence, reason
and life, inspiration and truth, etc.; the absolute manifesting itself
by the unfolding of fifty-two attributes, each unfolding comprising
seven eons, corresponding to the 364 days of the year, etc. It would
be wearisome to follow these extravagant thoughts, which, though the
learned may treat them with some respect, have for the psychologist only
the interest of pathologic evidence. Moreover, this form of mystic
imagination presents too little that is new for us to speak of it
without repeating ourselves.
To conclude: The mystic imagination, in its alluring freedom, its
variety, and its richness, is second to no form, not even to esthetic
invention, which, according to common prejudice, is the type par
excellence. Following the most venturesome methods of analogy, it has
constructed conceptions of the world made up almost wholly of feelings
and images--symbolic architectures.
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