Even those of us who hold a high Romantic view of imagination find it hard to picture what it was, for instance, to the melancholic magus, Marsilio Ficino, whose famous academy was the beating heart of Florence, as Florence was the heart of the Renaissance. For him, as for his Neoplatonic mentors, the cosmos was the realm of imagination itself through which the stars like archetypes – like gods – moved, moving us with the emanations of their vis imaginativa, imaginative power. Ficino’s attempts to net that power through natural magic are but hazily documented. Yet they certainly involved a combination of incantation and music, sacred talismans and scents and colours, to create an environment so ‘sympathetic’ to the planetary influences, whether Venereal or Jovial, Saturnine or Solar, that they were as if automatically drawn down, transforming the individual magus or used by him to transform others. Ficino’s follower, the English magus John Dee, similarly speaks of directing the stars’ effluvia into the ‘imaginative spirit’ where they coalesce more intensely, he says, ‘as in a mirror, show us wonders and work wonders within us’ – a marvellous depiction of the psyche as a kind of lens, concentrating and fusing the emanations of its own unconscious archetypes, pictured as both planets and gods.
I’ve begun with Ficino and Dee because I want to emphasise, firstly, that it is a modern eccentricity to think of imagination as being solely contained within us; and, secondly, that far from being some vague abstraction, it is a concrete theurgical power such as the Neoplatonists believed could bring statues to life.
What Ficino and Dee consciously invoked, Jacob Boehme experienced spontaneously when his eye happened to fall one day on a burnished pewter dish, which reflected the sunlight with such splendour (his friend Abraham von Franckenburg reported) that ‘he fell into an inward ecstasy and was suddenly able to gaze into the deepest foundations of the world.’ This happened in 1600, around the time of the scientific revolution when we ceased to take our congruence with Nature for granted, as Ficino had, and began to experience it as wholly separate from ourselves. Boehme shows his modern cast of mind when he thought that his vision must be only phantasia, a delusion easily banished by going outside. But when he walked out into the green fields, he found himself gazing into the very heart of things, down to the inner life of the smallest blade of grass, as if he were not simply observing Nature but intimately participating in it – as if his particular imagination reflected a universal Imagination, like Wordsworth in the poetic trance of ‘Tintern Abbey’, seeing ‘into the life of things’. Boehme’s vision of Nature is the first of its kind I’m aware of. Although it still occurs, especially among poets and painters, it’s rare. But it may once have been simply the way we all experienced the world, before we were cruelly divided from it.
Boehme did not make art out of his experience but theology. He asserted that the whole cosmos was powered by Imagination, the creative energy of God himself. It was left to William Blake to make this view into poetry, and to call forth ‘Jesus the Imagination’ out of Boehme’s alchemical belief that we should transmute ourselves through imagination into an image of Christ; or, more precisely, to set our souls to imagining into Christ as God imagines into the soul. Blake was able in the crucible of imagination to forge us back into unity with the world: ‘To the eyes of a man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself’.
[This article was previously published in ‘The Gist – A Celebration of the Imagination’ (edited by Lindsay Clarke, with a foreword by Andrew Motion) available at www.thewritefactor.co.uk/]
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