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Benjamin Swift
Image and Phantasm

In 1308, Chiara de Montefalco, or Saint Clare of the Cross, an abbess of an Augustinian monastery in Umbria, died from an illness, at which time an autopsy was performed and her heart removed. It was found to contain within it several miniature tools associated with the Passion, including three nails, a column, a scourge and a crucifix. Similarly, in 1320, following the death of the nun Margherita di citta di Castello, an autopsy found three stones engraved with images of the nativity in her heart. The contemporaries of these Saints felt little surprise in learning that the visions of those who spent their days imagining Christ’s suffering should actually come to manifest it in physical reality; that from dwelling so long on the crucifixion, the crucifixion should actually come to physically exist in their hearts. “For one accustomed to believing in the miracles of imagination,” said the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino, “it is not so farfetched to think the phantasmata of the beloved can take on shape and texture to the point that it becomes visible." People of that far-away time still believed in the idea expressed by the Islamic Aristotelian Al-Kindi,that “certain speeches which, coming from the mouth of man-- while expressing imagination, faith, and desire--actualize in the world motions within individual beings.”

Odd as it may seem to the modern reader, the physical manifestation of spiritual phenomenon is part of a long tradition associated with imagination, and just one of its many powers. At various times throughout history, the imagination was believed to be the primary agent in the creation of thought, the intellect, and the world; and contrastingly, a power of the mind inseparable from its productions of false appearances and simulacra, fantasy, or fancy. It has been seen as being both illogical and having a superior logic to human reason; for the imagination, as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposites or discordant qualities.” An examination, then, of the incongruities of the imagination’s definition, its falsity in addition to its truth, its fictions and its facts, will allow us to discern the continuities between its many meanings.

The history of the faculty of imagination (or phantasia, as it was known in the Classical Age) begins in Plato with a view of the imagination as an inherently false production of the mind. The Platonic idea of phantasia likens phantasms (the mental images produced by the faculty of the mind phantasia) to copies, or simulacra. Plato views the imagistic productions of the mind as kind of mimetic image, likening them to “‘appearance,’ ‘apparition,’ ‘guise,’ or ‘presentation,’ often with the strong implication of unreality.” Rarely in Plato do we see phantasms as informing truth; rather, they are unreliable, slippery informants, like dreams, encouraging a false knowledge representative of an inferior copy of an original, or an illusion of the phenomenal world.

Aristotle significantly departs from Plato’s conception, and his model of cognition--contradictory, undeveloped, and ambiguous as it appears to be at times--nevertheless provides a distinctive and significant place for the imagination in the mind’s processes. Aristotle locates the phantasia between sense perception and reason (or intellect), giving it the role of mediating between these two through the production of phantasms or mental images. To borrow a linguistic analogy: sense and reason, in Aristotle’s system, do not speak the same language, therefore the function of the phantasia is to translate sense perception into thought via the production of phantasms. As Aristotle puts it: “The soul cannot grasp anything that is not converted into a sequence of phantasms.” For Aristotle and the Peripatetic, “thinking is carried out by means of images, and the images have to be provided by the imagination.” Thought, he claims, is derived in filtering the senses through the imagination, and “it is the image-making part of the soul [phantasia] which makes the works of the higher processes of thought possible.”

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus further qualifies this definition by determining that the reasoning faculty itself is the accumulation of a “system” or “combination” of phantasms that becomes able to contemplate itself. Not only is thought made up of phantasms then, but also the intellect and reason itself is a “system” of them. As Epictetus says: “Now reason for what purpose has it been given by nature? For the right use of phantasies. What is it then itself? A system (combination) of certain phantasies. So by its nature it has the faculty of contemplating itself also. . . It is the chief and first work of the philosopher to examine phantasies, and to distinguish them, and to admit none without examination.” The reason or intellect in both Aristotle and Epictetus is given the task of accepting or rejecting the truth of any particular phantasm according to its judgment. However, unlike in Aristotle, Epictetus’ phantasms are no longer merely productive of thought; reason too is explicitly comprised of their combination. Human beings, Epictetus might have added, are wholly regulated by mental images, to the extent that their very intellect and individuality is no more than the combination of phantasms.

Following Stoic definitions, figures such as Longinus, Philostratus and Quintilian also moved to elevate the Aristotelian imagination beyond a mere image-making faculty. In Longinus’ tract “On the Sublime,” for example, the Phantasia is discussed as a power of the mind capable of making intelligibles visible through sensible objects (1). Similarly, Philostratus in his life of Apollonius of Tyana claims phantasia as a technique in art superior to mimesis, “for mimesis will only produce what she has seen, but phantasia what she has not seen as well; and she will produce it by referring to the standard of the perfect reality.” The Roman Rhetorician Quintilian makes another argument for the power of the imagination in the context of Rhetoric, stating the following: “There are certain experiences which the Greeks call ‘phantasia’ and the romans visiones, whereby things absent are presented to our imagination with such extreme vividness that they seem actually to be before our very eyes. It is the man who is really sensitive to such impressions who will have the greatest power over the emotions.”

The Aristotelian idea of the imagination, with the help of Stoicism and the notions supplied by such figures as those above (as well as influence of the Neoplatonists), by the 12th century began to undergo a radical shift within the Islamic world. Sufi thinkers such as Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi took Aristotle’s theory of phantasia as communicator between sensory and intelligible realities, and posited a parallel process to those of cognition on a much grander, macrocosmic scale. For these philosophers the imagination was no longer located solely in the human mind but was exteriorized in what we might call a world of the phantasia—what the historian of religion, Henri Corbin, called the “Imaginal World.” In the Words of Ibn Arabi: “everything that in our case the rational mind holds to be impossible and finds proofs to support, we find in that Earth [the imaginal world] to be not something impossible but something possible which does in fact take place.” This world is the exteriorized form of the human imagination or phantasia; a place in which everything that can be imagined exists. “Every event, prodigy, and sign which comes about in our world and of which the rational mind is loath to admit. . . whether angel or genie, every form or shape in which man looks upon himself in a dream, all of these are subtle bodies belonging to that other Earth.”

Essentially, the Islamic philosophers in question detached the idea of phantasia from the mind and projected it onto the world, locating it between the material world and the divine world. In its elevated position, the imagination became not only an agent in the cognition of humans in the microcosm, but in the macrocosm, the translator of the material into the divine. The location of the Imaginal World between humans and divinity necessarily meant that in order for the material world to come into being, it first had to pass through the imaginal. Not only, then, can humans access the divine only through the imaginal (similar to how sense must pass through phantasia to become thought in Aristotle), but for these philosophers the creation and conception of the material world is an act of the divine imagination, and the imagination “the principle and source of the entire universe.”

While Plato considers the image a degraded version of the real, Ibn Arabi sees this degraded version as gateway to the reality that it is its source. He not only “revalorizes [the image] to such a degree that it becomes the basic element of self knowledge,” but also fixes the imagination and its productions as the filter and medium of the creation of the world, and the locus in which a divine reality can be perceived. In tying the creative actions of divinity and the human connection with divinity to the imagination, Ibn Arabi (whose thought is paralleled to some extent in the West by the likes of Jacob Boehme and Swedenborg) paved the way for the artists of 19th century Romanticism and symbolism to make an explicit connection between the divine act of creation and the creative acts of artists, and in doing so, elevated the significance of the imagination far above its systemized cousin--reason--as the prime creative force of the artist.

Nowhere is this better expressed than in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who at the end of the first volume of his Biographia Literaria triumphantly announces the definition of imagination which would guide the Romantic era: “␣e 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 external act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Here is refracted not only the Peripatetic role of the imagination in perception as it creates cognition, but a cosmology similar to Ibn Arabi’s vision of a god who imagines the world into existence. Additionally, we find in this statement an idea that finally directly associates the divine imagination and art: the repetition of the original creative act of the world through the human agent in artistic creation. (2) This notion, however, was not unique to Coleridge, nor was he the only 19th century artist in whom the sources outlined so far, known or unknown to their agents, coalesced in a new flowering of the imagination. Indeed, one may also look to as contrary a figure as Charles Baudelaire to find an emblematic champion of this sort of imagination (3).

Baudelaire called imagination “the queen of faculties,” for “without it, all the faculties, however sound or keen they may be, are seemingly nonexistent.” All human cognitive actions, he believed, depended upon the imagination. “It affects all the other faculties; it rouses them, it sends them into combat.” According to Baudelaire, not only does the imagination play an active role, but is the primary agent in creative cognition. Yet, in a way like Epictetus, imagination for Baudelaire also takes on a role traditionally relegated to reason. “It is analysis,” he claims, “it is synthesis.” It is also the tool of the poet, he argues. “Imagination alone contains poetry.” Not only is imagination the synthesizing component of thought and the world; it is the superior method of creating art and the echo of the creation of the world in artistic creation. Addressing the imagination’s divine character, Baudelaire reasons that “since it created the world (this can really be said, I believe, even in a religious sense), it is only right that it should govern it.” Echoing Longinus, Philostratus, Ibn Arabi, and Coleridge, Baudelaire’s imagination “has [a] definite relationship with the infinite.”

Besides synthesizing aspects of many of the different theories of the imagination seen so far, Baudelaire contributes significantly to the definition of the imagination by wedding it with his theory of correspondences. Baudelaire likens nature to a “forest of symbols” in which every object and subject sympathizes--in which meaning proceeds through analogy. “Everything” claims Baudelaire, “is hieroglyphic,” and through the imagination one can discern with the tool of analogy the meanings of this “hieroglyphic dictionary.” In an essay on Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire further clarifies the role of imagination in a world of correspondence: “Imagination is not fantasy; nor is it sensibility. . .” he states, “Imagination is an almost divine faculty which perceives immediately and without philosophical methods the inner and secret relations of things, the correspondences and analogies.”

Baudelaire’s theory of the imagination as the synthesizer of correspondence has its precedents; and he himself acknowledges these debts. From a letter to Alphonse Toussenel on January 21, 1856, Baudelaire restates his theory of the imagination, poetry, and correspondence, while significantly giving the reader some clues as to his sources. “For a long time,” he explains, “I have said that the poet is supremely intelligent, that he is intelligence par excellence—and that the imagination is the most scientific of the faculties, because it alone understands universal analogy, or what a mystic religion calls correspondence.” Baudelaire’s idea of a world of correspondences, of occult sympathies between objects and subjects, owes much to persons such as Swedenborg and Boehme (not to mention Fourier), and perhaps, albeit indirectly, to systems of ordering images that have come to be known as the Art of Memory.

Coming to the end of this brief history we have seen the imagination designated as the following:

1. Mental images or presentations.
2. The processes that comprise the cognitive building blocks of thought.
3. The intellect or reason as a combination of phantasmic images.
4. A world with an analogous relation to the phantasia in the microcosm, projected between humanity and divinity or the material and the immaterial (potentiating communication between the two).
5. The means by which the world is created.
6. The restatement of the creation of the world as artistic creation.

Finally, I’ll suggest one more expansion of our already multifaceted definition of the imagination by examining its relation to memory. Using the history of mnemonics as a sort of device through which we might theorize the workings of the phantasms and their productions, we can clarify and expand on the role of phantasms in thought, intellect, magic, and divinity.

“It is apparent...” says Aristotle at the outset of his De Memoria, “to which part of the soul memory belongs, namely the same part as that to which imagination belongs.” Indeed, from the Classical world to the Reformation, memory and imagination exist in such proximity that the modern reader has the tendency, in retrospect, to conflate them. But though these two inhabit parallel spheres that are “shifting and very permeable,” we may, in discussing their shared action, learn something of their respective roles. The similarities and mutual activities of these two faculties are especially apparent in the so called “Art of Memory,” a series of interior practices in visualization, structuring, and ordering of mental images in the mind to synthesize, compose, build, recall, and reason through phantasms for a variety of compositional, cognitive, and mnemonic purposes.

The creation of systems in which memory images or phantasms might be stored (or more precisely, where they might be situated in relation to other phantasms) was a practice generated in antiquity, legendarily by Simonides, before being fully developed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Essentially, the art of memory was a method of arranging memories and mental-images into strict diagrammatic or locational order in order to aid in their recall. The scale of this kind of visual thinking went from projects as vast as “the ordering of all knowledge” and attempts at “systemic classification of reality” (see Giordano Bruno or Giulio Camillo’s memory systems) to rote memorization of the psalms or simple recollection of oratory by means of visualizations.

Systems of memory were not simply organs of synthesizing or ordering information, however. They were, in the mind of the Middle Ages, actually the progenitors of thought. Not only was their purpose to order phantasms to systematize the information of the world for purposes of recollection, but to order phantasms to actually create, compose, or craft thoughts. “In the idiom of monasticism,” the historian Mary Carruthers explains, “people do not ‘have’ ideas, they ‘make’ them.” This idea is displayed quite clearly in the etymology of the word cogitation:

Modern scholars usually translate cogitation as “thought,” but this conceals a crucial dierence in how pre-moderns conceived of what that is from how we conceive of it. Cassiodorus says literally that “the mind enters into thoughts”; a modern would much more likely say “the mind thinks.” Cogitatio (con + agito, “move, rouse”) is defined in rhetoric (and in Greco Arabic somatic psychology) as a combinative or compositional activity of the mind. It necessarily uses memory because it combines imagines from memory’s store. One should therefore think of a single cogitation or “thought” as a small-scale composition, bringing together (con + pono) various “bits” (phantasmata) in one’s inventory.

In short, the memory system or Art of Memory also comprised the patterning of our memories to form certain thoughts through imposing structure on phantasms. In the Monastic setting the fervent stew of memory and imagination was utilized towards meditation or “the craft of making thoughts about god,” but the memory structure in another area of society could just as easily be turned towards the production of other thoughts. This idea did not escape Giordano Bruno in his work “Of Bonds in General” and “On Magic” (4), nor have the implications of Bruno’s works escaped the eye of critics as an analysis of mass manipulation and propaganda (5).

The phantasm--the mental image--travels from the senses to the intellect (as in the Aristotelian conception) through the “machine” of the memory (and its locational network) where it combines with other phantasms and is structured to create thought, both consciously and unconsciously. We might consider, in this respect, the art of memory as the systematized development of a system of thought-making out of the Aristotelian idea that mental images are necessary in order to think. Therefore, it is possible, as the memory disciplines of monasticism (or the imaginal acrobatics of Giordano Bruno and his commentators) show, to “build” specific thoughts or ways of thinking through the use of structure, order, and arrangement of mental images. Bruno claims that not only a conscious structuring of the imagination changes the character of thought, but that all manner of sense perception changes thought through the imagination: in other words, to hear a song, to see a painting or movie, to feel cold or warmth, pleasure or pain--in short, all information received from the senses aect the phantasms (as they are translated into them) and the phantasm’s structure. This psychology of perception, in which mental-images or phantasms become the central component with which one makes sense of the world, is both the obvious logic and the conclusion of the imagination first posed by Aristotle: phantasms change as the senses change because phantasms are the translation of senses into thoughts. Essentially, through the intermediary of the phantasms, sense affects thoughts, and thoughts sense. To create art, then, is to participate in the forging of machines of cognition that create thought from senses and senses from thought.

Finally, through the historical vicissitudes of the imagination, and taking into account both the various permutations of the Aristotelian theory and the compositional logic of the memory system, we can account for four ways in which the phantasia or the imagination can be seen as functioning in the creation and consumption of art (6).

1. The varying images that make up an artistic composition might be considered a sort of machine for producing thoughts in the viewer (here I use the word machine in the sense in which it was used in the Middle Ages, as “any structure that lifts things up or helps to construct things”). The artist creates a composition of images that together aect a change in the structure of the imagination through the viewer’s perception, creating a series of thoughts triggered by the images in the work. Each collection of images is an impression, a state, a series of thoughts. To every group of images is attached the potential of a thought, actualized by the viewer. Art functions like Aristotle’s phantasia; thoughts are produced through the mediation and construction of the mental images derived from sensory impressions.

2. Just as art creates a combination of images that build thoughts, the viewer can create networks of memory to affect the meaning images make. The viewer, in this context, filters artwork and its images consciously through created networks of phantasies, more or less producing thought by associating them to their structure of memories. Meaning is created through the ordering of received perceptions. The structure of phantasies compels meaning into a form dictated by that structure. This second category brings the networks of memory to a conclusion both extreme and obvious: to any painting or art object we bring our machines of thoughts, and through the structure of our memories meaning is produced. At its best, this category of viewership is one of conscious interpretation of images; at its worst it is a system of huge biases. This sort of viewership also suggests the possibility of a radical sort of consciousness which would attach little to no importance on exterior images; a Docetism of sorts in which the simplest images could be filtered by interpretation to produce profound effects, or effects far contrary from those intended. Art, this view suggests, exists in the interpretation of mental images and their structure, and not in the physical structure of images.

Between the two categories above there is an incessant movement back and forth, and meaning is created as a conversation or combination between internal and external structuring of phantasies. The combination of images of the artwork interacts with the mnemonic structures the viewer uses to interpret, and meaning is forged in their agreement or dissonance.

3. A third category in which the imagination operates in the viewing of art does not create or synthesize meaning at all, but rather discerns the mechanics of systems of meaning-making. It is the synthesizing faculty that Baudelaire recognized in the imagination, that “perceives the inner and secret relations of things.” In this sense, it does not create meaning, but discerns how meaning is created. This synthesizing imagination identifies the structure of correspondences and analogies that combine to produce thought. It maps out the structure of memory systems and the ordering of phantasms that produce meaning. It acts like Epictetus’ philosopher, and in a “forest of symbols” sees each of its phantasms and their relation to one another through the system in which they are arranged.

4. The fourth method of viewership I call “symbolic” because it follows Gershom Scholem’s definition of a symbol as that which “signifies nothing and communicates nothing, but makes something transparent which is beyond expression.” In Henry Corbin’s words, a symbol is “the cypher of a mystery, the only means of saying something that cannot be apprehended in any other way.” The symbolic meaning moves through systems of reference, iconography, memory, and phantasy, making something apparent that is beyond the meaning of the work. Art in this case becomes--through its image--the doorway to another world.

* *

The historian of religions Ioan P. Culianu often used an analogy borrowed from Edwin Abbot’s novel Flatland to describe the movement or morphology of ideas in history. An idea such as “Gnosticism,” he claimed, is like a three-dimensional object cutting through the space of a two-dimensional world. It appears only as “a sequence of disparate phenomena in time,” for to perceive it as it is, another dimension is required. There is a similar inference to be drawn from Baudelaire’s statement “Poetry is what is most real, what is completely true only in another world” [my emphasis]. For Baudelaire, it is the role of the imagination to decode from the “hieroglyphic dictionary” of the phenomenal world the knowledge of an other world that only art can describe. I would liken this world to the imaginal. It is a world that is an infinity of worlds, whose principles are mutation, and whose method is metamorphosis; its center is everywhere and its circumference is nowhere--it is the world of the phantasm that art makes explicit, and that implicitly makes art.

Informing the language of the intellect, beneath the rhythm of thought, is the hieroglyphic phantasm, proceeding according to its combinatorial, analogic systems of association, in what particular patterns we rarely know. But to change the pattern is to change the thought and its meaning, and changing the pattern depends on changing the senses or intellect through the imagination--through the image. The structure of the phantasia, the way it produces thought, meaning, and symbol is developed through the senses and the retroactive ordering of the senses in thought. In this sense a book really is “a machine through which to think (7),” or as William Carlos Williams put it, “a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.” Not only is the art work a machine for producing thoughts through the medium of the imagination, but so too are books, poems, images, and music means by which the imagination takes hold of the mechanisms for producing thought, along with the secret, phantasmic correspondences with which the mirrors of the imagination project their endless forms. Art reveals the mnemonic-web of the world, and through it, the imaginal--and through the imaginal, something beyond the phantasm. Through the symbolic image “it decomposes... and from the materials accumulated and arranged according to rules whose origin is found only in the depths of the soul, it creates a new world, it produces the sensation of the new.”


1. There are also notable parallels to Ibn Arabi’s view (discussed later) that the material phenomenal world was created through the imagination in mystics like Jacob Boehme (See Yates’ “William Blake and Imagination” and Corbin’s cited work). It is also worth noting the existence of a “world of the imagination” for the Stoics (in Dan Flory. “Stoic Psychology, Classical Rhetoric, and Theories of Imagination in Western Philosophy” Philosophy and Rhetoric. Vol. 29, No. 2, 1996.), however its exact nature is not quite like that of Ibn Arabi’s conception.

2. He locates the creation of the artists, perhaps even more apparently, in what he calls the secondary Imagination; “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 re-create; 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.

3. William Blake also comes to mind.

4. “There are three gates through which the hunter of souls ventures to bind,” says Bruno, “vision, hearing, and mind or imagination. If it happens that someone passes through all three of these gates, he binds most powerfully and ties down most tightly. He who enters through he gate of hearing is armed with voice and speech, the son of voice. He who enters through the gate of vision is armed with suitable forms, gestures, motions, and figures. He who enters through the gate of the imagination, mind and reasons is armed with customs and the arts.” In another essay, “On Magic,” he furthers specifies his not-a-little creepy psychology of manipulating “bonds” in saying that imagination is the most important of these gateways to thought for “it is the doorway and entrance for all the actions and passions and feelings of animals,” and of course, as he goes on to add, is the direct mediator or producer of thought, which is essentially what the bonds are said to produce. The psychology of Bruno’s magic is essentially the art of changing the thought through appealing to the system of phantasies or the mnemonic-structure through the imagination and images.

5. Following the work of Ioan P. Culianu, writings of David Levi Strauss and Peter Lamborn Wilson have dealt with Bruno’s “bonding” as a psychology of viewing images, in terms of both mass media, propaganda, and the personal resistance to it.

6. Richards, I.A. Principles of Literary Criticism. London: Routledge Classics. 2001. VII


1. Robert Fludd, frontispiece from Ars Memoriae, 1612.

2 - 3. Petrus Von Rosenheim, Mnemonic Figures from Ars Memorandi Memorabiles Evangelistarum Figurae. 1502.

4. Giordano Bruno. Figura Intellectus. From Articuli centum et sexaginta adversus huius tempestatis mathematicos atque philosophos. 1588.


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