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The Plastic Imagination


By "plastic imagination" I understand that which has for its special
characters clearness and precision of form; more explicitly those forms
whose materials are clear images (whatever be their nature), approaching
perception, giving the impression of reality; in which, too, there
predominate associations with objective relations, determinable with
precision. The plastic mark, therefore, is in the images, and in the
modes of association of images. In somewhat rough terms, requiring
modifications which the reader himself can make, it is the imagination
that materializes.

Between perception--a very complex synthesis of qualities, attributes
and relations--and conception--which is only the consciousness of a
quality, quantity, or relation, often of only a single word accompanied
by vague outlines and a latent, potential knowledge; between concrete
and abstract, the image occupies an intermediate position and can run
from one pole to another, now full of reality, now almost as poor and
pale as a concept. The representation here styled plastic descends
towards its point of origin; it is an external imagination, arising from
sensation rather than from feeling and needing to become objective.

Thus its general characters are easy of determination. First and
foremost, it makes use of visual images; then of motor images; lastly,
in practical invention, of tactile images. In a word, the three groups
of images present to a great extent the character of externality and
objectivity. The clearness of form of these three groups proceeds from
their origin, because they arise from sensation well determined in
space--sight, movement, touch. Plastic imagination depends most on
spatial conditions. We shall see that its opposite, diffluent
imagination, is that which depends least upon that factor, or is most
free from it. Among these naturally objective elements the plastic
imagination chooses the most objective, which fact gives its creations
an air of reality and life.

The second characteristic is inferiority of the affective element; it
appears only intermittently and is entirely blotted out before sensory
impression. This form of the creative imagination, coming especially
from sensation, aims especially at sensation. Thus it is rather
superficial, greatly devoid of that internal mark that comes from

But if it chance that both sensory and affective elements are equal in
power; if there is at the same time intense vision adequate to reality,
and profound emotion, violent shock, then there arise extraordinary
imaginative personages, like Shakespeare, Carlyle, Michelet. It is
needless to describe this form of imagination, excellent pen-pictures of
which have been given by the critics; let us merely note that its
psychology reduces itself to an alternately ascending and descending
movement between the two limiting points of perception and idea. The
ascending process assigns to inanimate objects life, desires and
feelings. Thus Michelet: "The great streams of the Netherlands, tired
with their very long course, perish as though from weariness in the
unfeeling ocean." Elsewhere, the great folio begets the octavo,
"which becomes the parent of the small volume, of booklets, of ephemeral
pamphlets, invisible spirits flying in the night, creating under the
very eyes of tyrants the circulation of liberty." The descending process
materializes abstractions, gives them body, makes them flesh and bone;
the Middle Ages become "a poor child, torn from the bowels of
Christianity, born amidst tears, grown up in prayer and revery, in
anguish of heart, dying without achieving anything." In this dazzle of
images there is a momentary return to primitive animism.


In order to more fully understand the plastic imagination, let us take
up its principal manifestations.

1. First, the arts dealing with form, where its necessity is evident.
The sculptor, painter, architect, must have visual and tactile-motor
images; it is the material in which their creations are wrapped up. Even
leaving out the striking acts requiring such a sure and tenacious
external vision (portraits executed from memory, exact remembrance of
faces at the end of twenty years, as in the case of Gavarni, etc.),
and limiting ourselves merely to the usual, the plastic arts demand an
observant imagination. For the majority of men the concrete image of a
face, a form, a color, usually remains vague and fleeting; "red, blue,
black, white, tree, animal, head, mouth, arm, etc., are scarcely more
than words, symbols expressing a rough synthesis. For the painter, on
the other hand, images have a very high precision of details, and what
he sees beneath the words or in real objects are analyzed facts,
positive elements of perception and movement."

The role of tactile-motor images is not insignificant. There has often
been cited the instance of sculptors who, becoming blind, have
nevertheless been able to fashion busts of close resemblance to the
original. This is memory of touch and of the muscular sense, entirely
equivalent to the visual memory of the portrait painters mentioned
above. Practical knowledge of design and modeling--i.e., of contour and
relief--though resulting from natural or acquired disposition, depends
on cerebral conditions, the development of definite sensory-motor
regions and their connections; and on psychological conditions--the
acquisition and organization of appropriate images. "We learn to paint
and carve," wrote a contemporary painter, "as we do sewing, embroidery,
sawing, filing and turning." In short, like all manual labor requiring
associated and combined acts.

2. Another form of plastic imagination uses words as means for evoking
vivid and clear impressions of sight, touch, movement; it is the poetic
or literary form. Of it we find in Victor Hugo a finished type. As all
know, we need only open his works at hazard to find a stream of
glittering images. But what is their nature? His recent biographers,
guided by contemporary psychology, have well shown that they always
paint scenes or movements. It is unnecessary to give proofs. Some facts
have a broader range and throw light upon his psychology. Thus we are
told that "he never dictates or rhymes from memory and composes only in
writing, for he believes that writing has its own features, and he
wants to see the words. Theophile Gautier, who knows and understands
him so well, says: 'I also believe that in the sentence we need most of
all an ocular rhythm. A book is made to be read, not to be spoken
aloud.'" It is added that "Victor Hugo never spoke his verses but wrote
them out and would often illustrate them on the margin, as if he needed
to fixate the image in order to find the appropriate word."

After visual representations come those of movement: the steeple
pierces the horizon, the mountain rends the cloud, the mountain
raises himself and looks about, "the cold caverns open their mouths
drowsily," the wind lashes the rock into tears with the waterfall, the
thorn is an enraged plant, and so on indefinitely.

A more curious fact is the transposition of sonorous sensations or
images of sound, and like them without form or figure, into visual and
motor images: "The ruffles of sound that the fifer cuts out; the flute
goes up to alto like a frail capital on a column." This thoroughly
plastic imagination remains identical with itself while reducing
everything spontaneously, unconsciously, to spatial terms.

In literature this altogether foreign mode of creative activity has
found its most complete expression among the Parnassiens and their
congeners, whose creed is summed up in the formula, faultless form and
impassiveness. Theophile Gautier claims that "a poet, no matter what may
be said of him, is a workman; it is not necessary that he have more
intelligence than a laborer and have knowledge of a state other than his
own, without which he does badly. I regard as perfectly absurd the mania
that people have of hoisting them (the poets) up onto an ideal pedestal;
nothing is less ideal than a poet. For him words have in themselves
and outside the meaning they express, their own beauty and value, just
like precious stones not yet cut and mounted in bracelets, necklaces and
rings; they charm the understanding that looks at them and takes them
from the finger to the little pile where they are put aside for future
use." If this statement, whether sincere or not, is taken literally, I
see no longer any difference, save as regards the materials employed,
between the imagination of poets and the imagination active in the
mechanical arts. For the usefulness of the one and the "uselessness" of
the other is a characteristic foreign to invention itself.

3. In the teeming mass of myths and religious conceptions that the
nineteenth century has gathered with so much care we could establish
various classifications--according to race, content, intellectual level;
and, in a more artificial manner but one suitable for our subject,
according to the degree of precision or fluidity.

Neglecting intermediate forms, we may, indeed, divide them into two
groups; some are clear in outline, are consistent, relatively logical,
resembling a definite historical relation; others are vague, multiform,
incoherent, contradictory; their characters change into one another, the
tales are mixed and are imperceptible in the whole.

The former types are the work of the plastic imagination. Such are, if
we eliminate oriental influences, most of the myths belonging to Greece
when, on emerging from the earliest period, they attained their definite
constitution. It has been held that the plastic character of these
religious conceptions is an effect of esthetic development: statues,
bas-reliefs, poetry, and even painting, have made definite the
attributes of the gods and their history. Without denying this influence
we must nevertheless understand that it is only auxiliary. To those who
would challenge this opinion let us recall that the Hindoos have had
gigantic poems, have covered their temples with numberless sculptures,
and yet their fluid mythology is the opposite of the Greek. Among the
peoples who have incarnated their divinities in no statue, in no human
or animal form, we find the Germans and the Celts. But the mythology of
the former is clear, well kept within large lines; that of the latter is
fleeting and inconsistent--the despair of scholars.

It is, then, certain that myths of the plastic kind are the fruits of an
innate quality of mind, of a mode of feeling and of translating, at a
given moment in its history, the preponderating characters of a race; in
short, of a form of imagination and ultimately of a special cerebral

4. The most complete manifestation of the plastic imagination is met
with in mechanical invention and what is allied thereto, in consequence
of the need of very exact representations of qualities and relations.
But this is a specialized form, and, as its importance has been too
often misunderstood, it deserves a separate study. (See Chapter V,


Such are the principal traits of this type of imagination: clearness of
outline, both of the whole and of the details. It is not identical with
the form called realistic--it is more comprehensive; it is a genus of
which "realism" is a species. Moreover, the latter expression being
reserved by custom for esthetic creation, I purposely digress in order
to dwell on this point: that the esthetic imagination has no essential
character belonging exclusively to it, and that it differs from other
forms (scientific, mechanical, etc.) only in its materials and in its
end, not in its primary nature.

On the whole, the plastic imagination could be summed up in the
expression, clearness in complexity. It always preserves the mark of
its original source--i.e., in the creator and those disposed to enjoy
and understand him it tends to approach the clearness of perception.

Would it be improper to consider as a variety of the genus a mode of
representation that could be expressed as clearness in simplicity? It
is the dry and rational imagination. Without depreciating it we may say
that it is rather a condition of imaginative poverty. We hold with
Fouillee that the average Frenchman furnishes a good example of it. "The
Frenchman," says he, "does not usually have a very strong imagination.
His internal vision has neither the hallucinative intensity nor the
exuberant fancy of the German and Anglo-Saxon mind; it is an
intellectual and distant view rather than a sensitive resurrection or an
immediate contact with, and possession of, the things themselves.
Inclined to deduce and construct, our intellect excels less in
representing to itself real things than in discovering relations between
possible or necessary things. In other words, it is a logical and
combining imagination that takes pleasure in what has been termed the
abstract view of life. The Chateaubriands, Hugos, Flauberts, Zolas, are
exceptional with us. We reason more than we imagine."

Its psychological constitution is reducible to two elements: slightly
concrete images, schemas approaching general ideas; for their
association, relations predominantly rational, more the products of the
logic of the intellect than of the logic of the feelings. It lacks the
sudden, violent shock of emotion that gives brilliancy to images, making
them arise and grouping them in unforeseen combinations. It is a form of
invention and construction that is more the work of reason than of
imagination proper.

Consequently, is it not paradoxical to relate it to plastic imagination,
as species to genus? It would be idle to enter upon a discussion of the
subject here without attempting a classification; let us merely note the
likenesses and differences. Both are above all objective--the first,
because it is sensory; the other, because it is rational. Both make use
of analogous modes of association, dependent more on the nature of
things than on the personal impression of the subject. Opposition exists
only on one point: the former is made up of vivid images that approach
perception; the latter is made up of internal images bordering upon
concepts. Rational imagination is plastic imagination desiccated and

Next: The Diffluent Imagination

Previous: Preliminary

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