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

the myth-creators.

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.

The Motor Nature Of The Constructive Imagination The Organic Conditions Of The Imagination facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail