Debussy's music spreads a beyondness, imagines into bitonality and harmonic slantness. Mahler's 9th Symphony -- fathomless measures. Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps is another example of intense imagining. So are the paintings of Kandinsky and Yves Tanguy. Kafka's The Trial and The Castle stake out an exemplary surreal. The poems of Rilke dilate language to encompass the visionary elegiac. Bruno Schulz wrote The Street of Crocodiles, and an extra month was added to the calendar of being.
In all of these cases, world takes on a deeper, odder dimension, reality clothed in unexpected spiritual garments.
Since that general era, imagination has mostly failed to reappear in such profound intensities. Instead, it has coarsened or become anemic. Latter-day creative imaginers either try too hard (forcing the issue) or are fainthearted (diffuse with irony).
I wonder why.
Of course, ten million people would dispute my assertion. They would present a billion examples of stupendous latter-day imagining. I raise a skeptical eyebrow in their general direction. Rather than rebut on a case-by-case basis, I would do something else. And hope, by implication, a wholesale rebuttal to special pleading would manifest.
I will focus my attention on the qualities, degrees, and volumes of imagining -- on the dimensions of consciousness -- that were alive in that earlier, general era. Howsoever it petrified and faded would be a theme for a different essay.
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What was that thing happening in those souls back then? What is that thing still happening when we experience their works? I don't want to get too philosophical or strictly metaphysical about this. But surely there is some way of approaching it with thought and words. Something was in the air, so to speak, and spirits were more expansive. What was the nature of that different atmosphere?
Back then and for them, world was more than it seems. With "world" being the complex, ambivalent territory of phenomena, time, and consciousness. World as the fulcrum where sensibility and aesthetics oscillate toward an expressive balance. The very air teemed with and clocks traced hours of latent Art.
Schopenhauer had earlier imagined toward the numinous. Nietzsche probed the abyssal and ecstatic possibilities of the Dionysian. Freud and Jung peered creatively into the unconscious. Wittgenstein explored the limits of the articulate, opening up heightened proprietary space for metaphor. Something large was moving around the contours of consciousness, and it permeated the background for those serious explorers of the aesthetic and the spiritual. A texture of strangeness was perceived and brought to light in their works. Unlike today, their vision was not pipsqueak or saturated with ego.
What were the primary aspects of their imagining?
The main quality was a way of looking outside of self -- a sensitivity to how time plunges into its own pathological moods or spirals around the problem of human presence within it. The main degree was one of boundlessness -- artistic sentience bursting the limits of convention and tradition, of the formulaic and the earthbound. The main volume was a sphere of the mystical -- even if God had been relieved of duty, world as such still "spoke" a theme of austere and puzzling enchantment. The chiefest thing, though, was a breathing in and out again of the universal through a melancholic third eye.
Sergei Prokofiev, Edvard Munch, Walter Benjamin -- they translated large effusions into beguiling forms. Piano, canvas, essay. The Russian wrote beautiful melodies, but he also brought to life eccentric, percussive, entrancing energies. The Norwegian found keys of color and demeanor of moments to haunt with time-stopping élan. The German imbued his paragraphs with a complex blending of the Romantic and the Modern, taking thought into a daydream of enhanced abstraction.
It was an era filled with aesthetic Houdinis. A struggle of magicians with their resources of possible or temporary escape.
|The Furniture of Time -- Yves Tanguy, 1939|
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Marina Tsvsetayeva said "Past is still ahead....." She meant something subtler, more temporally poetic than what I will draw from it to conclude this essay: aesthetic imagination, pronounced and thriving in an earlier era, is still possible; even today, a few poets peer beyond the hedge of their emotional experience, a few painters brush near the enigma.