Monday, January 19, 2009

Fancy and Imagination

I really appreciate the comments of Becky, Lee, and Rolf to the "Memoir vs. Fiction" and "Haunting & Obsession" entries.

Becky's distinction between stories that seem "shrewd" vs those that are "imaginative" sent me back to Coleridge, which I quote below. Preferring T.C. Boyle as a whipping boy over Joyce Carol Oates, Becky calls him "themey," and I agree. Both Boyle and Oates come up with an idea, perhaps gleaned from a newspaper story, and then string together, quite cleverly, a story that illustrates the the idea. As Becky says, such stories are very teachable, easy to move through intellectually. However, a Munro story seems to "wash over us," not so easy to articulate what the themes are and what makes the story work.

Rolf is suggesting the same thing when he talks about some Munro stories "haunting" him and says that his own stories seem to come out of some haunted place. Such stories, which Sherwood Anderson once said start like a "seed" that seems inexplicably to grow, are surely more complex than the "themey" stories wired cold-bloodedly together the way Oates and Boyle do so very professionally.

Lee gives me another wonderful quote, with which I was unfamiliar (Thanks, Lee), this one from Hilary Mantel, about ghosts as "family secrets, buried impulses, unsolved mysteries, anything that lingers and clings..a sense of loss for something we can't name..a nostalgia for something we can't name...we carry all the past inside us; we are walking repositories of the lost."

A wonderful little story that seems a paradigm of this is Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover," but then most all of William Trevor and Alice Munro's stories are about a secret life. The key text about this secret, however, I think is the great master of the short story, Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog."

"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life, running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest, and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night."

Exploring those mysterious secrets, taking the risk of trying to give them some sort of emotional structure--surely that has something to do with the difference between a story of the Imagination, like Munro's, and a story of Fancy, like Oates and Boyle's

The reader's task is to let that wash over him or her; the student's task is then to carefully examine how the story created that ineffable sense of significance. It takes some work and understanding of language, literary conventions, and human emotion to grasp, however inadequately, the secrets writers know we store up in our ghostly hearts.

Just so you won't have to look it up again, here is the Coleridge quote:

“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, coexisting 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 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 phenomenon 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.” Coleridge, Biographia Literaria

The great formalist theorist Murray Krieger once said that what the artist tries to do is "I-amize" the world. I like that. It echoes Moses' mystification when he asked who the voice in the burning bush was, and the voice said to tell the Egyptians that "I AM" sent you." To say "I AM WHO I AM" is to suggest the ultimate creator. Is the writer's Imagination then the echo of this primal creative act?

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