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The Foundations Of The Creative Imagination

Why is the human mind able to create? In a certain sense this question
may seem idle, childish, and even worse. We might just as well ask why
does man have eyes and not an electric apparatus like the torpedo? Why
does he perceive directly sounds but not the ultra-red and ultra-violet
rays? Why does he perceive changes of odors but not magnetic changes?
And so on ad infinitum. We will put the question in a very different
manner: Being given the physical and mental constitution of man such as
it is at present, how is the creative imagination a natural product of
this constitution?

Man is able to create for two principal reasons. The first, motor in
nature, is found in the action of his needs, appetites, tendencies,
desires. The second is the possibility of a spontaneous revival of
images that become grouped in new combination.

1. We have already shown in detail that the hypothesis of a
"creative instinct," if the expression is used not as an abbreviated or
metaphorical formula but in the strict sense, is a pure chimera, an
empty entity. In studying the various types of imagination we have
always been careful to note that every mode of creation may be reduced,
as regards its beginnings, to a tendency, a want, a special, determinate
desire. Let us recall for the last time these initial conditions of all
invention--these desires, conscious or not, that excite it.

The wants, tendencies, desires--it matters not which term we adopt--the
whole of which constitutes the instinct of individual preservation, have
been the generators of all inventions dealing with food-getting,
housing, making of weapons, instruments, and machines.

The need for individual and social expansion or extension has given rise
to military, commercial, and industrial invention, and in its
disinterested form, esthetic creation.

As for the sexual instinct, its psychic fertility is in no way less than
the physical--it is an inexhaustible source of imagination in everyday
life as well as in art.

The wants of man in contact with his fellows have engendered, through
instinctive or reflective action, the numerous social and practical
creations regulating human groups, and they are rough or complex, stable
or unstable, just or unjust, kindly or harsh.

The need of knowing and of explaining, well or ill, has created myths,
religions, philosophical systems, scientific hypotheses.

Every want, tendency or desire may, then, become creative, by itself or
associated with others, and into these final elements it is that
analysis must resolve "creative spontaneity." This vague expression
corresponds to a sum, not to a special property. Every invention,
then, has a motor origin; the ultimate basis of the constructive
imagination is motor.

2. But needs and desires by themselves cannot create--they are only a
stimulus and a spring. Whence arises the need of a second condition--the
spontaneous revival of images.

In many animals that are endowed only with memory the return of images
is always provoked. Sensation from without or from within bring them
into consciousness under the form, pure and simple, of former
experience; whence we have reproduction, repetition without new
associations. People of slight imagination and used to routine approach
this mental condition. But, as a matter of fact, man from his second
year on, and some higher animals, go beyond this stage--they are capable
of spontaneous revival. By this term I mean that revival that comes
about abruptly, without apparent antecedents. We know that these act
in a latent form, and consist of thinking by analogy, affective
dispositions, unconscious elaboration. This sudden appearance excites
other states which, grouped into new associations, contain the first
elements of the creative act.

Taken altogether, and however numerous its manifestations, the
constructive imagination seems to me reducible to three forms, which I
shall call sketched, fixed, objectified, according as it remains
an internal fancy, or takes on a material but contingent and unstable
form, or is subjected to the conditions of a rigorous internal or
external determinism.

(a) The sketched form is primordial, original, the simplest of all; it
is a nascent moment or first attempt. It appears first of all in
dreaming--an embryonic, unstable and uncoordinated manifestation of the
creative imagination--a transition-stage between passive reproduction
and organized construction. A step higher is revery, whose flitting
images, associated by chance, without personal intervention, are
nevertheless vivid enough to exclude from consciousness every impression
of the external world--so much so that the day-dreamer re-enters it only
with a shock of surprise. More coherent are the imaginary constructions
known as "castles in Spain"--the works of a wish considered
unrealizable, fancies of love, ambition, power and wealth, the goal of
which seems to be forever beyond our reach. Lastly, still higher, come
all the plans for the future conceived vaguely and as barely
possible--foreseeing the end of a sickness, of a business enterprise, of
a political event, etc.

This vague and "outline" imagination, penetrating our entire life, has
its peculiar characters--the unifying principle is nil or ephemeral,
which fact always reduces it to the dream as a type; it does not
externalize itself, does not change into acts, a consequence of its
basically chimerical nature or of weakness of will, which reduces it to
a strictly internal and individual existence. It is needless to say that
this kind of imagination is a permanent and definite form with the
dreamers living in a world of ceaselessly reappearing images, having no
power to organize them, to change them into a work of art, a theory, or
a useful invention.

The "sketched" form is or remains an elementary, primitive, automatic
form. Conformably to the general law ruling the development of
mind--passage from indefinite to definite, from the incoherent to the
coherent, from spontaneity to reflection, from the reflex to the
voluntary period--the imagination comes out of its swaddling-clothes,
is changed--through the intervention of a teleological act that assigns
it an end; through the union of rational elements that subdue it for an
adaptation. Then appear the other two forms.

(b) The fixed form comprises mythic and esthetic creations,
philosophical and scientific hypotheses. While the "outline" imagination
remains an internal phenomenon, existing only in and for a single
individual, the fixed form is projected outwards, made something else.
The former has no reality other than the momentary belief accompanying
it; the latter exists by itself, for its creator and for others; the
work is accepted, rejected, examined, criticised. Fiction rests on the
same level as reality. Do not people discuss seriously the objective
value of certain myths, and of metaphysical theories? the action of a
novel or drama as though it were a matter of real events? the character
of the dramatis personae as though they were living flesh and blood?

The fixed imagination moves in an elastic frame. The material elements
circumscribing it and composing it have a certain fluidity; they are
language, writing, musical sounds, colors, forms, lines. Furthermore, we
know that its creations, in spite of the spontaneous adherence of the
mind accepting them, are the work of a free will; they could have been
otherwise--they preserve an indelible imprint of contingency and

(c) This last mark is rubbed out without disappearing (for a thing
imagined is always a personal thing) in the objectified form that
comprises successful practical inventions--whether mechanical,
industrial, commercial, military, social, or political. These have no
longer an arbitrary, borrowed reality; they have their place in the
totality of physical and social phenomena. They resemble creations of
nature, subject like them to fixed conditions of existence and to a
limited determinism. We shall not dwell longer on this last character,
so often pointed out.

In order the better to comprehend the distinction between the three
forms of imagination let us borrow for a moment the terminology of
spiritualism or of the common dualism--merely as a means of explaining
the matter clearly. The "outline" imagination is a soul without a body,
a pure spirit, without determination in space. The "fixed" imagination
is a soul or spirit surrounded by an almost immaterial sheath, like
angels or demons, genii, shadows, the "double" of savages, the
peresprit of spiritualists, etc. The objectified imagination is soul
and body, a complete organization after the pattern of living people;
the ideal is incarnated, but it must undergo transformation, reductions
and adaptations, in order that it may become practical--just as the
soul, according to spiritualism, must bend to the necessities of the
body, to be at the same time the servant of, and served by, the bodily

According to general opinion the great imaginers are found only in the
first two classes, which is, in the strict sense of the word, true; in
the full sense of the word false. As long as it remains "outline," or
even "fixed," the constructive imagination can reign as supreme
mistress. Objectified, it still rules, but shares its power with
competitors; it avails nought without them, they can do nothing without
it. What deceives us is the fact that we see it no longer in the open.
Here the imaginative stroke resembles those powerful streams of water
that must be imprisoned in a complicated network of canals and
ramifications varying in shape and in diameter before bursting forth in
multiple jets and in liquid architecture.

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Previous: The Utopian Imagination

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