Towards a New Theory of Film Criticism, Part Two

2.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Fancy” and “Imagination”:

It should clear that this essay is exploring Coleridge’s thought under the assumption that there is no reason why many of the ideas of literary criticism cannot also be applied to cinema.  In order to do this, it is worth taking the time to explain how Coleridge distinguished fancy (or fantasy) from imagination within philosophy and literary criticism itself.  If Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be considered the intellect behind the inclination of Romanticism to reject time-honored and established traditions, customs, and institutions, then the famous English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, can equally be considered the intellect behind much of Romanticism’s objections to the changing moral outlook that Industrialization was bringing to modern life.

While he is perhaps now best known as the author of poems like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan,” it is often forgotten that Coleridge was also perhaps one of the greatest literary critics of English Literature.  Even less known is the fact that Coleridge was also the author of a number of insightful and challenging philosophical, aesthetic, and theological works.  Coleridge’s stature as a thinker and critic, while largely unknown outside literary circles, is highly regarded as one of vast influence and insight.  T.S. Eliot wrote of the great “scope and variety of the interests which Coleridge brought to bear on this discussion of poetry.  He established the relevance of philosophy, aesthetics and psychology; and once Coleridge had introduced these disciplines into literary criticism, future critics would ignore them only at their own risk.”  As another admirer of Coleridge, Russell Kirk wrote that “Coleridge as a philosopher stands in the august line of English Christian thought: he continues the tradition to which Hooker, Milton, the Cambridge Platonists, Butler and Burke, in their several ways, adhered.”

Kirk explained how Coleridge’s Romanticism stood in growing opposition to the growing Utilitarianism of his day.  Coleridge identified increasing societal injustices and moral failings as resulting from what he called “‘the overbalance of the commercial spirit in consequence of the absence or weakness of the counter-weights.’”  Industrialization and Utilitarianism had combined “into ungoverned avarice [and] the moral check upon commerce [had been] injured by ‘the … the long and ominous eclipse of philosophy; the usurpation of that venerable name by physical and psychological empiricism; and the non-existence of a learned and philosophic public …’”

Noting how Coleridge’s “ambitious speculations about modernity are liable to disconcert today’s critic,” Thomas Pfau writes how Coleridge’s reasoning prompts “us to move away from a parochial and hermetic niche-criticism whose historicist and materialist assumptions and methodologies have steadily diminished the scope and stakes of intellectual argument in the humanities today.”  There is, therefore, great value to be found in reapplying Coleridge’s thought to modern life because, as Pfau argues, “it is the exceptional scope and intensity of Coleridge’s intellectual pursuits that allow him to conceive of modernity as a pervasive and potentially irremediable dilemma.”  This dilemma, moreover, appears in a new light when examined with Coleridge’s “assumption that the proverbial ancient/modern divide amounts less to a decisive break than a prolonged failure to remember traditions, legacies, and debts that, however unrecognized or repressed, continue to operate” upon how we live.  That the majority of film criticism is guilty of such a failure to remember is painfully evident when one reads most of the film reviews written today.

This is why Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s distinction between fantasy and imagination is so worth the effort of exploring.  And it does take a certain amount of effort.  As famous as it is, Coleridge never fully explains the distinction in any single one of his books or essays.  Instead, it is a distinction that is scattered in fragments, notes, and paragraphs throughout the entirety of Coleridge’s writing.  Finding these references is something of a treasure hunt and I have yet to read any one book that fully listed and discussed them.   Yet, while we do not have the time or space to detail his every mention of the distinction here, it will be enough of an introduction to take a look at two of his most famous explanations of it.  First, in one of his Notebooks, dated 1811, but unpublished during his lifetime, we find the following entry –

The image-forming or rather re-forming power, the imagination in its passive sense, which I would rather call Fancy = Phantasy, a φαίν[εɩν], this, the Fetisch & Talisman of all modern Philosophers (the German excepted) may not inaptly be compared to the Gorgon Head, which looked death into every thing – and this not by accident, but from the nature of the faculty itself, the province of which is to give consciousness to the Subject by presenting to it its conceptions objectively[;] but the Soul differences itself from any other Soul for the purposes of symbolical knowle[d]ge by form or body only – but all form as body, i.e. as shape, & not as forma efformans, is dead – Life may be inferred, even as intelligence is from black marks on white paper – but the black marks themselves are truly ‘the dead letter.’  Here then is the error – not in the faculty itself, without which there would be no fixation, consequently, no distinct perception or conception, but in the gross idolatry of those who abuse it, & make that the goal and end which should be only a means of arriving at it.  Is it any excuse to him who treats a living being as inanimate Body, that we cannot arrive at the knowle[d]ge of the living Being but thro’ the Body which is its Symbol & outward & visible Sign? –

After which paragraph, Coleridge next writes the following mental note to himself, planning to write more on the subject in the future –

From the above deduce the worth & dignity of poetic Imagination, of the fusing power, that fixing unfixes & while it melts & bedims the Image, still leaves the Soul its living meaning –

There are so many rich ideas in this single paragraph that it is difficult to keep up.  After glimpsing just a hint of Coleridge’s racing mind here, it is easy to see how many different implications this chain of reasoning could lead towards.  But understanding what he means is worth the effort, even if we only understand an incomplete portion of the idea.  What Coleridge calls “fancy” or “fantasy” is passive in nature.  It is a way of looking at the world as composed of objects.  In other words, it is a kind of perception of things.  Also, this faculty, or kind of thinking, is not, in and of itself, necessarily bad.  On the contrary, it is useful because, with the fixity of objects that it assumes, it makes “distinct perception” possible.  But then Coleridge is also concerned with a related error and he describes this error by using the word “idolatry.”  This idolatry is a mistaking of means for ends.  It is a treating of the animate as inanimate object.  It is mistaking and investing a power of reality in that which does not rightly contain reality.

Alan Gregory, in his penetrating book, Coleridge and the Conservative Imagination, comments on this 1811 passage from Coleridge’s Notebook.  Gregory explains that Coleridge here is describing “two accounts of perception: one is reductionist and has unhappy theological and ethical consequences;” while, by contrast “in the other, the elements of the reductionist account are subordinated to the imagination as a higher cognitive activity.”  Gregory finds it significant that Coleridge speaks of a person’s soul as being able to know symbols.  “At this point, Coleridge begins to introduce language with theological overtones.  His discussion shifts from the ‘Subject’ to which the fancy presents ‘its conceptions objectively’ to the ‘Soul’ that is capable of knowing ‘symbolically.’”  It is important to emphasize here that fancy or fantasy,  as Coleridge explains it, can have empirical uses.  But the problem is in taking empiricism too far.

Just because empirical thinking looks at everything as an object does not mean that that is what everything is.  If we are not careful we can end with a scientism that diminishes the truths in reality that we need our imagination to really perceive, to really remember that other persons are subjects too who perceive as we do, and to help us imagine the world as it appears through their eyes.  That this insight has implications for works of art then follows, and the difference is a difference of night and day, a difference between a sacred view of the world and human life and a dead, dehumanized, clinical view of the world that considers even the persons of a story as objects to be used for mere personal gratification.  Gregory explains how Coleridge is hinting at these two different ways of looking at the world as follows:

When the necessary fixities of the fancy are taken for the ‘goal and end’ of perception, the sacramental character of such presentations, as they exist for the imagination, is missed.  In its place is a ‘gross idolatry’ with grave ethical consequences: the treatment of ‘a living being as inanimate Body.’  The consequences are not only ethical, however, they are theological as implied here by the transition from misrecognising ‘living being’ to failing to know ‘living Being,’ or, as elsewhere, the ‘one life’ manifesting itself in the diversity of many things.  Fancy, then, presents reality in its ‘outside,’ it enables a ‘looking at’ stabilized appearances, a mistaken attachment to which leads to the Lockean stubbornness that demands, lingering at the limits of our bodily sight, that all things should conform to the possibility ‘of being seen, if only our visual organs were sufficiently powerful.’  Imagination, by contrast, taking the givens of the fancy, empowers a ‘seeing through’ the ‘outward and visible Sign’ that ‘while it melts and bedims the Image, still leaves in the Soul its living meaning.’  Imagination is the condition for cognitive participation in a sacramental universe.  By virtue of that, it is central, for Coleridge, to a nonreductionist account of human knowing.

Six years later, Coleridge wrote his second most detailed description of his distinguishing between fancy and imagination.  This description occurred in Coleridge’s philosophical and autobiographical work, the Biographia Literaria in 1817.  In Chapter IV, Coleridge explains that we possess different faculties and that fancy and imagination are different from each other, more in kind than in degree:

Repeated meditations led me first to suspect, – (and a more intimate analysis of the human faculties, their appropriate marks, functions, and effects matured my conjecture into full conviction,) – that Fancy and Imagination were two distinct and widely different faculties, instead of being, according to the general belief, either two names with one meaning, or, at furthest, the lower and higher degree of one and the same power.

Next, in Chapter VII, Coleridge refers to “the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking.”  If we pay attention to how we think, we will find that there is a difference between conscious thought that is intellectually passive, merely attending to what we perceive and conscious thought that is active, actually engaging in the act of thinking for oneself.  Therefore, Coleridge reasons:

There are evidently two powers at work, which relatively to each other are active and passive; and this is not possible without an intermediate faculty, which is at once both active and passive.  In philosophical language, we must denominate this intermediate faculty in all its degrees and determinations, the IMAGINATION.

Then, finally, at the very end of Chapter XIII, Coleridge wrote what is perhaps his most cited and most famous couple paragraphs on this distinction:

The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary.  The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.  The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.  It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate: or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.  It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites.  The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phaenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice.  But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.

It does not matter whether we decide that we completely understand or that we completely agree with Coleridge here.  Nor are the exact words, imagination and fancy, which he chooses to use here as important as the ideas which he is using them to explain.  Coleridge is not making up this distinction on his own.  It is, for example, clearly derived from some summary remarks William Wordsworth made in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), which Coleridge and Wordsworth published together.  It could be said that it echos Leibniz’s distinction between les idées réelles and les idées fantastiques ou chimériques.  Even further back, this is a distinction that could be traced to Aristotle’s discussion of memoria, in which the conscious will can be exercised in order to view the world as a collection of empirically demonstrable objects or exercised to imagine the potential that there are other subjects with minds and wills of their own.

What does matter is that, by making this distinction, Coleridge is asserting that there are different ways in which we perceive the phenomena, forms, images and representations of our world.  Different art forms are primarily concerned with creating representations of these images for the purpose of being perceived.  This distinction has been of such great influence in aesthetics because of how it deals with how we choose to perceive.  When a viewer perceives anything, he chooses whether to be passive or to be active.  This is always a choice.  As Owen Barfield explains, the “imagination is an interplay between active and passive elements in the relation between man and nature” and “that interplay may be consciously experienced.”

The imagination is fundamentally creative.  Any imaginative work invites the viewer or consumer to actively engage with the work, exercising the imagination in order to see beyond one’s own limited personal experience or perspective.  Fancy, or fantasy, on the other hand, is more passive.  It is limited by merely receiving sensations.  These sensations do not require either imagination or active thought.  They can be surrendered to.  Indeed, they can be fixed for the express purpose of passive reception and need require no effort at all.  The objects used by, or perceived by, one’s fantasy, have no life or will of their own.  And their existence as objects does not have to be a means to any creative effort or understanding, but can serve as ends in themselves.

Fantasy, then, as Barfield explains, “is the aggregating power; it combines and aggregates given units of already conscious experience” and, unlike imagination, does nothing to draw any higher meaning or symbols from sense perception.  “Coleridge speaks of ‘the universal law of the passive fancy and the mechanical memory.’  Schemes which promise an artificial memory, ‘in reality can only produce a confusion and debasement of the fancy.’  And again, our fancy is ‘always the ape, and too often the adulterator and counterfeit of our memory.’”  That this is an ethical insight becomes more evident the more one applies it.  Degrees of consciousness, particularly in regard to our own thinking and perception, are a matter of choice.  And, if the imagination exists in the moral sphere, then it is a fundamental part of what makes us human.  This is further true even if we do not always choose to be conscious of what makes us human.  To consider how this applies to how we choose to be aware of the assumptions that shape our own conscious thought, and to how we choose to allow what we perceive to shape whether we view our perceptions as only objects, it is worth looking at how Barfield takes the Coleridge’s idea of the fancy to some of its logical conclusions:

In the first place, then, fancy has its proper and beneficent place in the genesis of consciousness as a whole and, particularly, in the conversion of perceptions into memories.  But it is easily debased.  In its debased form, it is, as passive fancy, more or less identical with precisely those characteristics of human perception, which it is the function of imagination (by modifying perception) to overcome, namely: ‘the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude,’ in consequence of which ‘we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not …’  The mind is in thrall to [a] lethargy … when it feeds solely on images which itself has taken no active part in producing.  But there is more to it than this.  For the debasement of active fancy carries this process further.  Where the mind deliberately chooses to feed only upon such images, there you have the debasement of active fancy; and there the lethargy … becomes that deliberate practice of reducing ‘the conceivable within the bounds of the picturable’ …

Another name for reducing “the conceivable” to only “within the bounds of the picturable” is Logical Positivism, a worldview that has interesting consequences when applied to the arts.

It is my hope that the reader will not find this too obscure.  The scope and influence of this distinction within aesthetics and literary criticism has been extensive.  Following Coleridge’s lead, in 1845, Leigh Hunt defined imagination as “feeling of the subtlest and most affecting analogies; the perception of sympathies in the natures of things” or “analogical sympathy;” while, by contrast, he defined fancy as the “younger sister of Imagination, without the other’s weight of thought and feeling … a combination of images not in their nature connected … [or] one image capriciously suggested by another, and but half connected with the subject of discourse; nay, half opposed to it …”  John Ruskin wrote later that the “fancy sees the outside, and is able to give a portrait of the outside, clear, brilliant, and full of detail.  The imagination sees the heart and inner nature, and makes them felt, but is often obscure, mysterious, and interrupted.”

In his 1893 essay, “The Fantastic Imagination,” George MacDonald wrote that when invented “forms are new embodiments of old truths, we call them products of the Imagination; when they are mere inventions, however lovely, I should call them the work of the Fancy.”  In 1896, also influenced by Coleridge, W.B. Yeats referred to the imagination and the fancy, explaining that “one is a revelation, the other an amusement.”  In his Nuove Pagine Sparse, 1948-1949, Benedetto Croce applied Coleridge’s distinction in discussing how the differences between immaginazione and fantasia help us understand the transforming character of metaphor and creativity in art.  R.G. Collingwood defined imagination as the “mediating faculty between sense and intellect” rather than just an aggregation of pleasurable sensations.  Therefore, Collingwood concluded that imagination “provides a knowledge guaranteed by the work of art, which raises perception, feelings, creation, and expression to consciousness through a concrete acts.”

In able to understand Coleridge’s distinction from yet another angle, it will be enjoyable to see his influence upon a writer as witty and as justifiably popular as Dorothy Sayers.  In her theological work, The Mind of the Maker (1941), Sayers uses the terms imagination, fancy and fantasy a little differently from Coleridge, but she still is getting at the same idea.  Sayers’ use of the distinction is perhaps the best that I have ever read.  She writes:

It is here that we reach the great watershed that divides Imagination from Fantasy – activities often confused by psychologists.  “The subject,” they say, “invents things about himself”; as though there were but one kind of invention.  In fact, the two things have almost nothing in common … Fantasy works inwards upon its author, blurring the boundary between the visioned and the actual, and associating itself ever more closely with the Ego … The creative Imagination works outwards, steadily increasing the gap between the visioned and the actual, till this becomes the great gulf fixed between art and nature … It is hard to persuade psychologists that this distinction between Imagination and Fantasy is fundamental – chiefly because of their rooted refusal to receive the writer’s testimony in his own behalf.  It is as though they insisted on assuring a gourmet that there was no real difference between assafoetida and Lafitte, and that any distinction made by his palate was a mere rationalisation of some accidental collision with assafoetida in his infancy … The stronger the creative impulse, the more powerful is the urge away from any identification of the Ego with the created character.

Creative Imagination is thus the foe and antidote to fantasy – a truth recognised by psychologists in practice, but frequently obscured in their writings by a muddled use of the two terms as though they were interchangeable.  Evidence of a habit of fantasy in a child is no proof of creative impulse: on the contrary.  The child who relates his fantasied adventures as though they were fact is about as far removed from creativeness as he can possibly be; these dreamy little liars grow up (if into nothing worse) into the feeble little half-baked poets who are the irritation and despair of true makers.  The child who is creative tells himself stories, as they do, but objectively; these usually centre about some hero of tale or history, and are never confused in his mind with the ordinary day-dreams in which he sees himself … It is not that the one kind of fancy develops into the other; they are completely and consciously independent.  Accordingly, the first literary efforts of the genuinely creative commonly deal, in a highly imitative manner, with subjects of which the infant author knows absolutely nothing, such as piracy, submarines, snake-infested swamps, or the love-affairs of romantic noblemen.  The well-meant exhortation of parents and teachers to “write about something you really know about” should be (and will be) firmly ignored by the young creator as yet another instance of the hopeless stupidity of the adult mind.

The way that Sayers makes imagination the equivalent of the childlike view of the world is clever, but it also illustrates another point.  There is a sense in which fantasizing is focused on the self, and uses the outside world, along with the people in it, as objects in order to gratify the self’s own desires and appetites.  By contrast, imagination is focused on that which is outside the self.  It demonstrates a willingness to see the world as imbued with a mind or minds other than the self and even through their eyes.

George Santayana would go on to use Coleridge’s distinction in the same way as Sayers, noting how “fancy is decaying sense” and how the “connection of imagination with the external world, obvious in the beginning is soon lost and obscured, owing to the hidden cerebral labyrinth in which the currents which carry imagination with them meet.  It therefore seems, after a little, that the course of imagination has nothing any longer to do with what is happening in the world of matter; and its liveliness and fecundity are attributed to the will, or to genius, or to chance – or to some other pompous synonym for ignorance.”  And, in explaining the distinction in these terms, Santayana notes how youth often is more willing to think imaginatively and this willingness can be lost with age.

Interestingly enough, both T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien disagreed with Coleridge’s formulation of the distinction as a difference of kinds, and instead argued that it is instead a difference of degrees.  In doing so, they both then applied the distinction between fantasy and imagination in creative ways, and it will be worth discussing Eliot’s and Tolkien’s differences while we later apply the distinction to different cinematic forms.

Now, the reader can probably already imagine what much of this line of thinking could have to do with the making and viewing of films.  However, in order to provide a practical real-world example of Coleridge’s distinction, we will next move to a rather embarrassing story about two film directors named Kroger Babb and Ingmar Bergman.

To be continued …