The Romantics and the Creative Imagination

Therapists and self-help writers often stress the role of creativity in a healthy and happy life. And yet this is nothing new. Over 200 years ago, a disparate group of artists, painters and writers known as the Romantics placed creative imagination at the heart of their movement.

The Background

Romanticism centered largely on France, England and Germany and involved painters, poets and philosophers. It began around the middle of the 18th century and was at its height in the first two decades of the 19th.

In the 17th century, men like Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon laid the foundations of the scientific method. Nature, they argued, was not sacred or divine but a vast machine that could be analyzed, measured, taken apart, and brought under human control. And this yielded results. During the 17th century, advances and discoveries were made in numerous fields, culminating in 1687 with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Newton, a scholar at Cambridge University, produced a mathematical explanation for the workings of the Universe. Before this, people turned to poetry and scripture. Now reason and mathematics provided the answers; and not only answers but power. Inspired by people like Newton, 18th century writers and intellectuals revered and promoted reason above all things. Reason, they argued, would usher in a new age, free of superstition and barbarism.

The Romantics disliked such veneration. To them, science (and the industrial revolution to which it gave birth) limited and restricted the human imagination. The French philosopher Rousseau, for example, favoured spontaneity and emotion over reason. And the English poet William Blake even painted a famous image of Newton bent over a book, compass in hand, while the vast Universe glitters away behind him, ignored.

The Sublime and the Beautiful

In 1757, the British philosopher Edmund Burke published a book titled The Sublime and the Beautiful. For Burke, the beautiful is calm, ordered and harmonious; the sublime, however, is vast, irregular, and awesome. When you walk through neatly-laid gardens, with squares of lawn separated by beds of flowers, you are soothed and delighted. But when you look out over a rainforest lit by flashes of lightning, or walk in the mountains as the sun sets, you are awed and frightened. The gardens may be beautiful, but the rainforest and mountains are sublime.

The Romantics favoured the sublime. And they did so because it thrills and inspires. In its presence, we try to create sense and meaning. When you look up at a meteor shower and feel wonder, you are creating that wonder. Space doesn’t know it is sublime! To sense the sublime is therefore to create.

The Romantics were not, however, opposed to science. And they did not completely reject reason. On the contrary, science itself could be a source of wonder. Anyone who looks at the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, for example, knows this for themselves.

Idealism and Creativity

Thirty years after Burke published his work, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant completed The Critique of Pure Reason. Kant argued that how we perceive the world is both limited and shaped by the “categories” we inherit. In other words, we cannot escape space and time, cause and effect, or the human senses. The objects about us – the car on your drive, the trees under your window, the pens on your desk, etc – Kant named phenomena. We can see and touch these objects; they exist in space and time and obey the laws of cause and effect.

But noumena, by which he meant reality outside of, or beyond, these categories, can never be known. You cannot escape your senses, and you cannot get outside the prison of space and time. So we inherit a certain apparatus with which we approach the world, and that apparatus dictates or shapes our experience. We never see the world as it truly is, in itself, free of all such categories. Instead, we represent (or re-present), the world – we create what we see.

A century later, Oscar Wilde picked up this idea and used it to defend his theory of Aestheticism. For Wilde, it is art that really shapes experience. When a great artist paints a beautiful image of London on a foggy afternoon, wrote Wilde, it changes our experience. Before the artist, people considered fog nothing but an inconvenience – or barely noticed it. The artist creates a new experience and teaches us to see in a new way, to see the sublime where once we saw nothing but an obstacle or irritation. As the Romantic poet Coleridge put it, “we receive but what we give.”

If Kant is right and we cannot escape these categories, we can at least find a richer, deeper experience of the phenomenal world. Imagination creates the world. But for this to happen, imagination has to be intensified. If the world is to exist for us, if imagination is to work in other words, something must be happening.

The Romantics were drawn to extremes, especially extreme emotion. When Byron said “it is better to be in pain than to feel nothing at all,” his point was that pain animates and fuels the creative imagination. And this happens at the collective as well as the personal level: a whole culture or society can run out of energy.

The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth even called for the revival of paganism. In his great sonnet The World is Too Much With Us, he writes that “getting and spending” has destroyed imagination. We “lay waste our powers,” and are “out of tune” with nature and unmoved by natural beauty. Better, writes Wordsworth, to be a “Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.” That way, our perception or experience would change.

Blake and Creativity

Perhaps the most famous of all the Romantics, at least in the English-speaking world, is the poet and mystic William Blake. Blake was born in London in 1757 and from an early age saw “visions,” (or, if you prefer the language of modern psychiatry, “suffered hallucinations”). In his own day he was obscure and ignored; indeed, many considered him insane.

Blake painted nightmarish images, wrote poetry and philosophy, and even created his own mythology. Modern analysts argue that he was schizophrenic. Like Blake, schizophrenics sink into the unconscious; unlike Blake, they do not return.

Blake survived his descent through creativity. Instead of being overwhelmed, he turned the unconscious symbols into poetry, myth, and paint. In other words, by transforming the symbols of the unconscious into art, he maintained contact with the outer world. And his mythic figures were what Jung called archetypes of the collective unconscious.

So what did Blake mean by the creative imagination? To his contemporary, Dr Johnson, the more imagination dominated reason, the madder someone was. And even today, the word can be used as an insult (“what a vivid imagination you have,” or “oh, you just imagined it”). For Blake, however, imagination is existence: “the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow…”

Like many other Romantics, he was an Idealist, emphasizing the role the mind plays in creating the world. Or, as Blake writes in Jerusalem, “in your own bosom you bear your heaven and earth and all you behold; though it appears without, it is within, in your imagination, of which this world of mortality is but a shadow.”

And it is vital to understand and embrace this. Blake, like many other Romantics, believed people needed waking up. They needed liberating from their mental prisons, from what he called “the mind-forged manacles.” In perhaps his single most famous passage, Blake says, “if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.” Remove these doors and we will live richer, deeper, and more joyful lives.

Modern scientists are not so quick to dismiss these ideas as one might imagine. The 20th century physicist James Jeans, for example, observed that “the universe seems to me to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine,” while the contemporary physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies draws attention to the simple fact that we can understand the universe: “our intellectual capabilities link in to the deepest processes of the universe in a way which is not accidental.”

Of course, Romanticism is a huge subject, involving numerous great thinkers and artists, many of whom disliked and disagreed with one another (Byron despised Wordsworth and Keats, for example). And yet their belief in imagination and creativity is every bit as relevant. Indeed, so many of us today live such restricted, routine, alienated lives that if anything their ideas are more relevant.

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