The Mechanism of the Organic: A Tribe Called Coleridge

A few beats in regard to the organic and mechanical components in the act of creation:

Concerning the creative process, there appears to be a connection between Aristotle’s Poetics and Poe and Coleridge. Aristotle seems to believe that creating art comes by “remixing” artistic elements and devices already in existence. Coleridge picked up on this and influenced Poe (and Flannery O’Connor). For Coleridge (and the Romantics), imagination was essential to the creative process. He divided imagination into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Fancy. This is what he says about the first two:

“The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.”

So, what do these three categories mean? It seems to me that the first, Primary Imagination, is almost like an out-of-body experience. It is pure imagination; it is spiritual and divine. Note here that it is not Aristotle’s remixing idea, which relates to Coleridge’s other two categories. Primary Imagination creates pure, new ideas. It is akin to Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” 

Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination is that which is filtered by our conscious, rational act of creating.  Hence, it is imperfect and impure. But of course it is entirely necessary and essential, for there would be no way to capture the primary imagination’s creation without it. And this seems to correlate with Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow” that is captured only by being “recollected in tranquility.”

Coleridge’s third category, Fancy, is rather Aristotelian. Here imagination creates by remixing already existing things in fresh, new ways– especially juxtaposing opposite or contrary things. In his Biographia Literaria, he says the imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image.”

Plato’s dictum “Great is the power of contradiction” relates nicely to this. So does the fruitful activity of comparison in the rhetorical canon of invention.

In conclusion, we see that all three are essential in the creative process. Coleridge’s Primary Imagination is akin to the organic, and his Secondary and Fancy categories are akin to the mechanical.

After all, as the clever and artistic nineties hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest asks in their “What?” track,

What is position if there is no contortin’?

What is a glock if you don’t have a clip?

What’s a lollipop without the Good Ship?

What’s America without greed and glamour?

          So we might also ask, what is organic without the mechanical?

Not a, not a, not a, not a darn thing

What’s Duke Ellington without that swing?

2 Responses

  1. This provokes a slightly tongue-in-cheek reponse from me:

    1º Imagination –> Transcendent encounter with ontological realities such as permanence and change, memory and its preservation, community of meaning, mannishness, etc.
    2º Imagination –> Literature, photography, cave paintings, language production, etc.
    3º Imagination (Fancy) –> Scrapbooking with commercially available self-adhesive elements and standard-sized pages and binders

    I say only “slightly tongue-in-cheek” because the relationships between the three categories are real, and what I listed may not be true given every facet of those phenomena. It seems to me that the distinctions between the categories may not be very clear in the midst of the sheer complexity of situations, except by the application of specific definitions. I wouldn’t say those definitions are unimportant; they are the basis of the distinctions. However, I am left to wonder whether or not the categories might be derivatives of a more general principle having to do with the nature of embodiment and surrogacy. This perception approaches the codependence of that which is embodied and its embodiment(s), a relationship discussed quite a bit in some philosophical circles. In fact, some thinkers end up “talking in circles” about this. Anyway, I’d be interested to know others thoughts.

  2. David,

    I love this stuff! Thank you. I think it’s important to clarify something. When Coleridge uses the word imagination, he is treating it as something other than, even a different kind of thing, than the fancy.

    The fancy is Aristotle’s idea of mixing things up in new combinations. It works its way upward from the senses.

    The imagination is very different. It comes down from above as you indicated above. The secondary imagination depends on the primary imagination, because we can’t be conscious of something that our soul hasn’t first perceived. But, again, as you show, it is an expression of the primary imagination and therefore arises, not from the senses, but from that faculty of perception that sees the eternal (and that is the primary imagination).

    Coleridge hoped that his distinction would be the next development in people’s understanding of the human powers of perception and knowledge. He didn’t realize that the 19th century would see the almost total triumph, in the English speaking world, of the empirical approach to knowledge.

    As a result, instead of maintaining his separation between imagination and fancy, the aesthetic theorists have not only denied the distinction, but applied the word imagination, which he wanted to apply to the transcendent, to the fancy, which he wanted applied to the sensory.

    To make his defeat total, we don’t even use the word fancy anymore, at least not as it was used in his day. The closest we come is to say, “Fancy that,” though I’m not sure people know what that means any more either.

    Ironically, if one were to paraphrase it, he would say, “Imagine that.”

    Ouch. May Mr. Coleridge find his comfort in the One who revealed so much to his imagination.

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