Seeing and shaping

The analytical tradition in epistemology that emerged in the pre- and early Enlightenment period was mesmerised by the ideal of a completely dispassionate, totally objective, perfectly clear and absolutely certain act of knowing. Bacon believed that an unmitigated realism was possible for science. Descartes' method confined itself to 'what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce'. It was an ideal of knowledge without the knower, objectivity alienated from subjectivity, a god-like knowledge. In reaction the 'turn to the subject' in modern philosophy has produced an alternative conception, that of 'personal knowledge' (identified particularly with Michael Polanyi) which takes as its watchword 'no knowledge without a knower'. In The Knower and the Known, Marjorie Grene (developing Polanyian insights) has systematically challenged the Cartesian position, opposing to it a basically Kantian position. All knowledge is 'the achievement of the whole, inalienable psycho-physical person.. .not the work of a disembodied intellect' (Grene, 1966, pp.81f.; see also Crewdson, 1994, pp.28ff.).

Polanyi argued that 'the structure of scientific intuition is the same as that of perception' (Polanyi, 1962, p. 12). Perception is paradoxical: in our knowledge of the physical world we are receptive but not passive, constructive but not inventive. We work hard—in the realm of the imagination—to arrive at reliable knowledge of the world. It was a core tenet of Romanticism that perception is creative, that the mind has the making of reality. So Blake pronounced: 'As a man is so will he see.' And in The Everlasting Gospel he wrote:

This Lifes dim Windows of the Soul Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole And leads you to Believe a Lie When you see with not thro the Eye.

In The Prelude, Wordsworth gave poetic elaboration to this fundamental insight of the Romantics (Wordsworth, 1971). The poetic faculty enhances what is objectively out there:

An auxiliar light

Came from my mind, which on the setting sun

Bestowed new splendour...

... and the midnight storm

Grew darker in the presence of my eye.

The creative power of nature inhabits the poetic imagination and its expression in words:

.the great Nature that exists in works Of mighty Poets. Visionary power Attends the motions of the viewless winds Embodied in the mystery of words.

With the image of the 'viewless winds' Wordsworth is not only borrowing a phrase from Measure for Measure (III.i. 122) but, more importantly, is echoing John 3.8: 'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.' He is hinting at the divine source of poetic inspiration. This is of course a classical as well as a biblical metaphor and it is as the former that it is employed by Shelley: 'The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness' (Shelley, 1888, vol. 2, p.32).

The pre-established harmony between the mind and nature was to have been the theme of Wordsworth's projected philosophical poem 'The Recluse' and he announced his subject in a 'Prospectus':

How exquisitely the individual Mind

.to the external World

Is fitted:- and how exquisitely, too—

Theme this but little heard of among men—

The external World is fitted to the Mind;

And the creation (by no lower name

Can it be called) which they with blended might

Accomplish:- this is our high argument.

(Wordsworth, 1920, p.755)

While Wordsworth was writing The Prelude (1799-1805), Coleridge was already expressing similar ideas in 'Dejection: An Ode' (1802; Coleridge, 1969, pp.362ff.). Coleridge laments the fading of poetic inspiration which had lit up the natural world. Though he knows that the world is still beautiful, it has lost that transcendent aura that resonated with the poetic gift. 'I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!' (ibid., l. 38). The direction is not from outer reality to inner experience, but vice versa. The poet does not imitate nature but transforms it through creativity:

I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

In a classical statement of the Romantic creed that imagination can transfigure the impersonal Newtonian universe, Coleridge continues:

O Lady! we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does nature live: Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud! And would we ought behold of higher worth, Than that inanimate cold world allowed To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd, Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud Enveloping the Earth— And from the soul itself there must be sent A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth, Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

Coleridge goes on to ask 'what this strong music in the soul may be',

This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist, This beautiful, and beauty-making power.

'Joy' is 'the spirit and the power' that reveals a new heaven and a new earth, the luminous cloud that envelops the earth, and from it flows all beauty of sight and sound:

All melodies the echoes of that voice, All colours a suffusion from that light.

'Joy' is another name for the 'shaping spirit of Imagination' (ibid., l. 86). Coleridge's final benediction to his beloved reiterates the Romantic philosophy of creative perception:

To her may all things live, from pole to pole, Their life the eddying of her living soul!

The insights of the Romantics are corroborated by modern psychology. Anthony Storr has explored the connection between the inward quest for harmony and wholeness in the psyche, and the outward quest for order and structure in the world. He points out that 'the human mind seems so constructed that a new balance or restoration within the subjective, imaginative world is felt as if it were a change for the better in the external world, and vice versa'. Storr adds: 'The hunger of imagination which drives men to seek new understanding and new connections in the external world is, at the same time, a hunger for integration and unity within.' Artistic creation and aesthetic appreciation depend on this correlation of subject and object, this 'creative apperception' that colours the world around us with the hues of our own imagination. Storr quotes Winnicott's remark that: 'It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes us feel that life is worth living' (Storr, 1989, pp.124, 71). It seems that, provided our basic human needs are already met, nothing is more likely to induce a sense of spiritual well-being and wholeness than seeing the form of beauty that is not ourselves and knowing that we have a part in it.

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