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.

The Creative Imagination In The Child The Emotional Factor facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail