Back to top

Writing the imagination

Thursday, 3 October, 2019

Jean Honoré Fragonard’s drawing L’inspiration de l’artiste (ca. 1761-1773) shows us the artist in the act of conceiving an artwork. Before embarking on the material process of creation, he shuts his eyes to the outside world and unleashes the power of his imagination. Various fantastic figures, both sublime and grotesque, emerge from an amorphous background and gradually take shape. Whereas the artist is overwhelmed by his inner fancies and seems plunged into a state of ecstasy, the spectator of the image witnesses how the empirical world gradually gives way to the imagination. It seems as if we were observing the moment just before the eclipse of reality, and that a second later the emerging fantasies might continue to swallow up the island of sensory perception in the centre of the stage. Instead of seeing only the finished picture, we are made to see the very process of imagination that produces it.

L’inspiration de l’artiste by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

‘L’inspiration de l’artiste’ (ca. 1761-1773), by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

I would argue that this scene can help us to reconsider other eighteenth-century reflections on the imagination. Fragonard’s drawing is not only a product of the imagination, it simultaneously strives to stage the power of the imagination itself. The mode of representation and the represented object are made to converge. The imagination is used as a tool to explore its own workings.

Self-reflexive moves of this kind can also take place in texts that are engaged in one way or another with the imagination. A writer can explicitly say something about the imagination, but he or she also always does something with the imagination, be it explicitly by using a fictional mode of representation, or implicitly through the metaphorical underpinnings of his or her thought. Even though these two dimensions – theory and practice of the imagination – may be present to different degrees, they are usually inseparable. Diderot’s Le Rêve de d’Alembert is a case in point. The interlocutors of this dialogue repeatedly make statements concerning the imagination, but at the same time the reader becomes involved in an imaginative process: a flow of collective associations, stunning analogies and metaphors, fantastical creatures.

The eighteenth century has often been described as the crucial turning-point in the history of the imagination, as the pivotal moment in which an inferior faculty becomes an anthropological force of fundamental importance. It is also the period that puts into question the Cartesian idea that there is a purely rational standpoint beyond the imagination (the cogito). My recent book Die Kraft der Figuren (The Power of Figures) reassesses this process by focusing on the interaction between theoretical claims and practices of writing. This approach turns out to be most productive in the case of authors who explicitly take into account the power of the imagination as a part of their own writing, such as Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot, who are at the centre of the study.

One could say that the desk of these philosophers, like that of Fragonard’s inspired artist, is placed in the midst of the imagination, and not opposed to it. Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot conceive the imagination as a process they are always already involved in. As Fragonard teaches us, though, this also entails the risk of coming into touch with the imagination’s dangerous side, represented by the dark hybrid creature in the lower left-hand corner of the drawing…

– Manuel Mühlbacher

Share