I bought this book after reading a blurb for it in another book in the series. This series, published by John Hopkins press in the late sixties offers some very interesting topics, and I’d like to have a few of them. The book promised to shed light on Johnson’s moral thinking and writings, a promise that the books has fulfilled admirably and has invigorated my reading of Johnson and got me raring to reread Rasselas in the new light given by the book. The books main claim is that all of Johnson’s utterances, but in particular his modern ones can be explained with the two forces of imagination and reason.
Imagination is defined as the force in the human mind which pictures that which is not currently there and can be projected forward in the forms of hope and fear, but also backward in the form of memory, being the cause of imagined golden ages and hateful times. Imagination, according to this view of Johnson, springs from man’s temporality, and to follow the ‘choice of life’ is to follow imagination's hallucinatory, delusive and narrowing dance. Imagination causes the mind to latch on to earthly things, an ambition to be a successful author for example, and to picture that success until the mind narrows onto this hope for the future and it becomes a driving need, maybe even an obsession. However, when/if this fantasy is fulfilled, the fulfilment is in the temporal and imperfect world, and the mind will find something else to latch onto. The life of imagination can be in no way satisfying and it is this that Johnson meant when he described life as moving not from ‘pleasure to pleasure’ but from, ‘hope to hope’.
Reason is defined as the logical and intellectual link to ‘the choice of eternity’, unlike imagination's way of narrowing the mind and pulling it right into the pain of human drama. Reason takes the mind aloft and looks at these obsessions dispassionately. Reason can curb the imagination and when exercised can change a person from being an obsessive butterfly collector, with no interest in anything outside of butterflies, to a true agent of science. Because imagination focuses the mind on the self and the ends of the self, it is reason that inspires compassion for others and truly humanitarian ends because it sees above the petty squabbles of people.
The problem is, that to to feel that a person can be a completely rational being, or to try and be a completely rational being ourselves is itself one of the delusions of imagination. As people we are inextricably temporal beings, constantly over the precipice of death and it is the hopes, delusions and obsession of imagination that keep us waking up in the morning and living life. So it is not the eradication of imagination that Johnson wants, but the use of the rational side to keep us connected to the larger, more general and universal concerns, to stop imagination leading us down an egocentric tunnel. It is this process which is the passionate intelligence of the title.
I’m not sure how I feel about this dichotomy, if just because like all of us in the twenty-first century, I have been brought up with the romantic notion of imagination as a positive force and as a storywriter and lover of silliness and playing, especially fond as a child of ‘let’s pretend’ games, I find the conception of imagination hard to swallow. However the idea of their being two impulses in a human, one to the narrow and specific and one to the general and universal does seem an accurate description of the world. As does the repeated need of obtaining and remembering that humane and detached view that saves us from our own desires and obsessions. If you can find this book, I recommend to pick it up, it gets the mind thinking if nothing else.