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Friday, December 28, 2012

P.S. re Jane Austen's Letter 91: "Something of fancy perhaps, & something of imagination"

In response to my post yesterday....


....Diana Birchall pointed out earlier today in Austen L and Janeites that the poet Samuel Coleridge addressed the question [of imagination and fancy] in his Biographia Litteraria, distinguishing sharply between the two.

As I will argue at the end of this post, I now understand exactly how salient the distinction between imagination and fancy really was for Jane Austen. It was so important for her, that she designed her greatest creation, Miss Bates, as the character who perfectly illustrates that distinction, because Miss Bates appears to Emma and to the uncritical reader to speak nothing but fancy, whereas, to the critical, sensitive reader, Miss Bates's speech demonstrates the highest level of imagination.

First, here is a quotation from Chapter 13 of Coleridge's work which makes the distinction between his definitions of imagination and fancy pretty clear:

"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." END QUOTE

So it seems that for Coleridge, secondary imagination is the faculty used by the writer in creating a coherent reality that is presented to the artist's readers, whereas fancy is a non-creative faculty which passively transmits an incoherent jumble of sense impressions.

Here is what appears to me to be an excellent, crystal-clear online summary of the above by someone going by the fanciful name "Royal Queen of Literature":

"Imagination and fancy, however, differs in kind. Fancy is not a creative power at all. It only combines what is perceives into beautiful shapes, but like the imagination it does not fuse and unify. The difference between the two is the same as the difference between a mechanical mixture and a chemical compound. In a mechanical mixture a number of ingredients are brought together. They are mixed up, but they do not lose their individual properties. In a chemical compound, the different ingredients combine to form something new. The different ingredients no longer exist as separate identities. They lose their respective properties and fuse together to cerate something new and entirely different. A compound is an act of creation; while a mixture is merely a bringing together of a number of separate elements. Thus imagination creates new shapes and forms of beauty by fusing and unifying the different impressions it receive from the external world. Fancy is not creative. It is a kind of memory; it randomly brings together images, and even when brought together, they continue to retain their separate and individual properties. They receive no coloring or modification from the mind. It is merely mechanical juxtaposition and not a chemical fusion. ...For Coleridge, Fancy is the drapery of poetic genius but imagination is its very soul which forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole. Coleridge owed his interest in the study of imagination to Wordsworth. But Wordsworth was interested only in the practice of poetry and he considered only the impact of imagination on poetry; Coleridge on the other hand, is interested in the theory of imagination. He is the first critic to study the nature of imagination and examine its role in creative activity. Secondly, while Wordsworth uses Fancy and Imagination almost as synonyms, Coleridge is the first critic to distinguish between them and define their respective roles. Thirdly, Wordsworth does not distinguish between primary and secondary imagination. Coleridge’s treatment of the subject is, on the whole, characterized by greater depth, penetration and philosophical subtlety. It is his unique contribution to literary theory." END QUOTE

Now to my punch line. As soon as I reflected on what light the above discussion sheds on JA's reference to imagination and fancy in Letter 91, I realized that this was directly connected to the Emma subtext of Letter 91 which I previously outlined in my above-linked post yesterday.

I.e., JA is telling CEA, in code, to use her imagination to deduce the hidden coherent meaning of the apparently random jumble of incoherent images that JA has presented. And that's where Miss Bates comes into play. Miss Bates's dialog initially appears to be nothing more than a random jumble of incoherent images, if you take her, as Emma does, as a scatterbrained motormouth. I.e., using Coleridge's terminology, Emma sees Miss Bates's speech as 100% the product of fancy. However, if one takes Miss Bates, as I do, as a veiled self-portrait by JA, and if one searches for the hidden meaning in her words, it turns out to be extremely coherent and eloquent, and the essence of creative imagination, if one reads Miss Bates as being a Joycean poet rather than a scatterbrained motormouth.

So thanks again, Diana, for bringing this issue to the fore, it has borne rich fruit for me.

Cheers, ARNIE

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