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The Psychological Power of Image

December 17, 2015

The Psychological Power of Image

For this novel, the importance of image lies in its psychological and political power.

A few examples: the sick imagination of the Nazis produced the powerful, negative image of the hook-nosed Jew, and equally produced the powerful, positive image of the blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan superfolk. Both were destructive delusions of the body politic. Likewise the sick American imagination produced the bug-eyed black-faced clown, the watermelon-eating pickaninny, and the ape-featured Obama. Those images are powerful lies, vicious falsifications of life. And now the image of the gun, in the heroic hands of the everyday savior. On the other hand, our healthy imagination has produced (with help from the French imagination) the image of a colossal, mythical woman holding aloft the torch of Liberty (fraternity, equality—lest we forget), the seated, meditative Lincoln, and two clasped hands, one Afro- one Euro-.

Narration on the subject of “the psychopathologies of American democracy” needs a working idea of the psychology of such images, and since my idea is based on Hillman’s suggestions about the logos of the psyche, I put a lot of emphasis on imagination and the pathos of the soul.

The thing is that throughout life, and certainly in politics, a significant portion of our thinking takes the form of images. I suppose that most people aren’t aware that that is what they’re doing—imagining life in the form of images—but they are anyway; and we can seek an understanding of ourselves and others within our democracy by being alert to our images (and stories and conversations—other pages).

On an earlier page I was thinking out loud about the nature and importance of images, by thinking about the archetype (and I need to think out loud more about that); but an image doesn’t have to be archetypal to be meaningful and important to our health, or unhealth. After all, we have dreams with work-a-night, but not very gripping, images; and then sometimes we have “big dreams” that go Full Archetype on us; and many of the dreams that we remember as somehow meaningful are somewhere in between.

Likewise there are poems that do the job adequately, with their mildly suggestive images; others that we go back to again and again, because they’re so enlivening; and some that go Full Archetype and are much bigger and deeper than we are—or rather, as Bottom said of his dream, they hath no bottoms (Hillman).

Images function psychologically—indeed they form a major part of the logic of the psyche—in every area of life, including the everyday thinking of ordinary people, advertising, political speeches, propaganda, Supreme Court opinions, sacred texts, and on and on.

When our imaginations (individual or collective) are healthy, we create images that nourish that health; but when the imagination is unhealthy, woe unto us, because we can exert much destructive power against ourselves and others. It behooves us to keep it healthy.

Since a major technique in the art of poetry is the creation of images (and art tends to be a healthy imagining, although it isn’t always), on this page I’ll make a go at explaining how an image gets its power, by using, for illustration of the nature of image, a short poem by William Carlos Williams that depends for its effect particularly on its images.

Image is experiential, so first here’s the poem itself.

Thinking about how that works, for contrast here’s the poem’s discursive content in narrative prose:

So one morning in Rutherford, NJ, ca. 1920, a local doctor, Doc Williams, has just arrived at the hospital to make his rounds. While grabbing a coffee he chats with a colleague, who mentions that it rained all night and it was still raining when he drove in. Dr. Williams says, “Quite a rain. But it stopped, a little while before I left home, and I saw something wonderful as I was driving past a neighbor’s house who raises chickens and does a little gardening.   He left his wheelbarrow out all night, a red one, and this morning some of his white chickens got through the fence and were scratching in the garden, close to that wheelbarrow. As I passed by, the rising light was just right on the wet barrow, and it was a beautiful scene. It lifted my spirits.” Then he ducks into an office, with just enough time to grab a prescription pad and jot down a draft of a poem.

(Btw, we know that WCW had such a neighbor, and that he drafted poems on scraps of paper.)

In his college textbook, An Introduction to Poetry, Louis Perrine defined “imagery” as “the representation of sensory experience in words.” In that sense, the imagined conversation above, contains images. But as I’m using the term in a psychological (and more fully aesthetic sense—and that’s important, but another page), I’ll call those descriptive words “merely details,” because of the degree to which, in context, they are factual, meant only to be understood literally.

“Images,” what I’m talking about, are more richly imagined than are factual “details,” more moving, more “pathological’ in the neutral sense of the soul’s pathos, its moving movement in a changing world. With images, our mind enacts a particular kind of (healthy or unhealthy) relationship with the world.

In my imagined scene, “Williams” gives his colleague a detailed description of his factual experience, what was there to be seen by anybody driving past. Then he adds a quick discursive explanation of why it meant enough to him that he remarked it and is telling about it, sharing it. He wants to communicate to his colleague that it was a very ordinary moment in the very ordinary world, but charged with a deeper vitality, an aesthetic vitality created by beauty, by soul, via a relationship that he had entered into with it, with his full (and healthy) imagination. His (and ours, if we read well) was a creative relationship, multi-dimensional in the way it engaged his mind in an ensouled world.

He wants his colleague to get that valorization; then, being a poet, he believes he can re-create his experience, verbally, in a way that gives us readers something closer to the full quality of his experience, by causing us to experience those same words for things, but structured to become an image. If we read the poem with alert imagination, we enter into his complex creative interrelationship of things, words, ourselves, and each other—“It avails not, time and space avail not,” as Whitman put it.

Williams makes his first move, he sets us up, by cueing us that we are reading about something serious. Indeed, so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens.

It’s fun to see that in prose form. Looks simple enough; realism. We look for meaning. But if we read it literally, as prose typically suggests, it doesn’t make sense. Clearly this is not a political manifesto, contract, newspaper article, philosophical treatise, or religious tract (except maybe for us Taoists).

If we read prosaically, it’s details appear to be a section from an agricultural manual—or maybe a page on a Web site about local, small plot, organic gardening. We read about selecting the seeds, gathering the tools, preparing the soil, planting; and note: so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Say what?

If we are looking for meaning literally, we will think this is a joke (confirming our suspicion that poetry is silly). We will feel baffled. The poem, especially in its poetic structuring of verbal consciousness, is actually too concrete, too specific, too physically individual to make literal sense.

We have missed the intense “sense” that it makes with its sensory perception intensified by our alert imagination molding our consciousness, loving the world.

Ah, now we get it. There is something else, of great importance, on which so much depends. It must be something of our general humanity, multi-dimensional, intuitive, impassioned.

Our imaginative experience of the vivid energy of the things of the poem, and of the poem itself as a thing, mirrors (in the psychological sense—as the child is mirrored by the loving parent) our moment by moment life of the imagination, the life of the soul, which depends upon our imaginatively perceiving the things of the world—in their beauty, in their good health, and ours. We’re things too.

Images are necessarily composed of factual details; they use the things of the world as their raw materials, which is to say, following Hillman, soul creatively transforms our sensory perceptions into food for itself, to keep itself healthy, and it does so by re-imagining the material world into holistic, dynamic energy—nourishment; thus soul in me, for instance, enters into creative relationship with my perceptual experience; and it does most of that food prep in the kitchen of my brain, in which I am mostly unconscious. In a dream, it cooks while I sleep. The night chef is at work.

After all, the “material world” is available to us as being “material,” matter, in the first place, because our senses participate in our imagination, with the result that we imagine whatever that stuff is, that we perceive “out there,” as being, in part, a “material world.” But we also have other modes of perception (emotions, reason, intuition), acting in consort with the senses, in a unified act of imagination (Kant, Coleridge) so that we imagine being as being much more than mere—but sine qua non—physical “things.” Thus things are ensouled.

But we have a day chef too, surprisingly artistic, about whose work, although still done largely in the dark alchemical kitchen of the unconscious, we can (and should, as good citizens) become highly aware. We can be sous chef.

This Williams poem is an example of how the healthy imagination works. A doctor cooked it up.

But there is an unhealthy imagination, a kind of contra-imagination that poisons our food.

To literalize being, for instance when we read words—especially sacred texts—only literally, one-dimensionally, is an attempt to refuse to imagine, and thus to refuse to provide nourishing material for the soul. For the literalist the conscious world is unimaginable, one-dimensional, fixated. Then soul starves in us, and we become spiritual wraiths.

Yet the wraith goes on imagining! Literalism, thinking or reading literally, is itself an act of imagination, a chosen mode of imagining, subconsciously imagining the world—in a desperate, delusional act of self-affirming projection—as dead wood for the fire. It’s a psychological act. It can be a serious illness, when it’s a symptom of fear and a side-effect of denial, or when it is a weapon for attempting to negate the universality of soul.

(I suspect I’ll be doing more outloud thinking about that on a page about the apocalyptic vision of life that is promoted by ISIS and others. “Dead Wood for the Fire”?)

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