This Friday I will be joining Yvonne Salmon and James Riley in the Alchemical Landscape panel at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, UK and Ireland (ASLE-UKI) biennial conference in Cambridge. You can read the abstract below, but I’d like to use this post to explore some tangential ideas via a stream-of-consciousness collage of quotes.
The Bright Sound Behind the Sound: Real-World Music, Symbolic Discourse and the Foregrounding of Imagination
This paper responds to a recent article by American sound artist Kim Cascone in which he asserts that the recent trend for the presentation of environmental recordings as ‘sonic art’ is crucially lacking in some form of ‘soul’ or vitality. Cascone suggests that it is the responsibility of an artist working with real-world sounds to enter a more imaginative engagement than precedents within the field (and within the wider field of sonic arts in general) have historically presented. The paper briefly explores historical impulse to deprecate the importance of imagination, along with the imaginative implications of discourse around what Norman calls ‘real-world music’. From here, we explore the relationship between imagination and sound in two pieces of sonic art and argue that one response to Cascone’s call for an imaginative turn can be found within the idea of the symbol as codified in Romantic and ‘traditional’ poetic discourse (after Kathleen Raine). The paper explores the way in which a cultivation of an ‘imaginative perception’ can be used to define, reveal or elucidate such symbols in a compositional context and relates the creative and interpretive use of ‘sound-symbols’ to both Voss’ methodology of the imagination (2009) and Thomas’ multidimensional spectrum of imagination (2014).
Throughout the paper various references are made to the use of the symbol and creative imagination in the work of Kathleen Raine, Cecil Collins and Peter Redgrove. One thing that struck me is that both Collins and Redgrove describe the role of imagination in the creative process by using the metaphor of a theatre, in which the symbols of an otherwise invisible reality are unfolded or revealed. Collins referred to this as the theatre of the soul, and beautifully describes it as circling around an invisible point – in distinction with the ‘eccentric imagination’ – one gets the feeling that Collins sees the eccentric imagination as typifying the surrealist attitude, whereas his ‘concentric imagination’ typifies a symbolic or traditional attitude:
Turning more to the content of your art, you have referred to your imaginative vision as a ‘theatre of the soul’. Can you explain what you mean by that phrase?
I mean that art is not a place but a condition where the life of the soul is re-enacted. When I say the life of the soul I mean the real life of the soul, what is happening in the life of the soul. It’s a theatre because the theatre is ritual, and this is enacted in various pantings of mine to remind the spectator that art and life is a covenant made with the Divine Reality.[…]
Does this link up with what you said earlier about the dynamic of the dream?
Yes, if it [the imagination] is connected with the Divine Reality then it would mean that there would be a point around which the imagination circles, and that is what I mean by concentric imagination as opposed to eccentric imagination – imagination which has no point to circle round. Creative imagination circles round a hidden point, so I think of the theatre as a concentric imagination, and in itself already a point of enactment. […]
Were you ever conscious of a need to, as it were, populate your ‘theatre of the soul’?
I had no idea of having a ‘theatre’ and ‘populating’ it, because it doesn’t work like that with me. Everything is revealed and unfolded, gradually or suddenly, from the unknown. I don’t know what’s coming, and what’s more, I’m not really very interested in what’s coming, because then I would not get that very important surprise, which is what creativity is about. […]
– Cecil Collins in conversation with Brian Keeble, in The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings.
Redgrove describes his ‘black theatre’ as follows:
‘Black’ here means ‘invisible’ and is no more to do with evil than ‘black theatre’ is. Black theatre is when the curtain goes upon a stage where the footlights are glaring into the audience’s eyes, and so all beyond them seems deepest darkness. A stand with sheet music floats in as it by magic, and a white chair appears from nowhere and sits in front of it Then a violin enters, carried by a pair of white gloves, which begin to play.
The animation, disappearance and appearance of visible objects out of black nothing seems miraculous. Yet we know that actors dressed from head to foot in black are doing it, invisible against the black background. It is an image, surely, of the creative mind in its waking dream, guiding us through the mysteries of an intelligible yet invisible underlying reality. The reality grips us, and, while there are experiences for which there are no images, if we see, then we see with a synaesthetic eye, and call such images ‘symbols’. Sensation is then visualised – in the visionary mode, not the optic one.
Incidentally, the theatric metaphor for creative imagination also reminds me of AE’s description of his ‘imaginative reality’ as being seen through a window in his mind, as though one were looking out of a room full of personal effects (our memories and individual psychology) and onto other, transcendent vistas:
WHEN I am in my room looking upon the walls I have painted I see there reflections of the personal life, but when I look through the windows I see a living nature and landscapes not painted by hands. So, too, when I meditate I feel in the images and thoughts which throng about me the reflections of personality, but there are also windows in the soul through which can be seen images created not by human but by the divine imagination. I have tried according to my capacity to report about the divine order and to discriminate between that which was self-begotten fantasy and that which came from a higher sphere. These retrospects and meditations are the efforts of an artist and poet to relate his own vision to the vision of the seers and writers of the sacred books, and to discover what element of truth lay in those imaginations.
– AE, Preface from The Candle of Vision
Kathleen Raine and Cecil Collins both agree the the types of symbols arising from this ‘invisible (or hidden) point’ possess a quality of vivacity: symbols are dynamic – they may possess a general metaphysical ‘meaning’ imbued upon them by culture and tradition, but this is a generality. Their meanings deepen or open up new facets as a consequence of their unfolding or revelation during the creative process.
The notion of a theatre in which one encounters living symbols or images of things which themselves represent deeper, hidden, invisible metaphysical (or unconscious) reality brought me to thinking about the role of ‘astral’ images in the occult cosmology popularised by Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Agrippa viewed the world in a tripartite form: we inhabit the sublunary world, which is under the influence of the celestial, or astral world, which in turn is an expression of an ineffable divine or ‘intellectual’ world. Drawing particularly on the work of Arabic astrologers, Agrippa presents us with various lists of ‘images’ associated with the stars, for example:
In the third face [of Libra] ascendeth a violent man holding a bow, and before him a naked man, and also another man holding bread in one hand, and a cup of wine in the other; the signification of these is to shew wicked lusts, singings, sports and gluttony.
Evidently these images convey metaphysical ‘truths’ in some way, yet their use in talismans also indicates that they are in some way ‘active’, possessing some sort of ontological status apart from the types of moralistic emblems that also proliferated in the Renaissance.
Giordano Bruno would later incorporate these forms of imagery into his Hermetic interpretation of the classical ars memoria, De Umbris Idearum, declaring them, in Yates‘ words, “closer to reality than the images of things in the sublunar world, transmitters of astral forces, the ‘shadows’ intermediary between the ideal world above the stars, and the objects and events in the lower world.” Like the artist engaged in a process of concentric imagination, circulating the unfolding symbols that emerge from the ‘hidden point’, only taken to a fantastic, systematic extreme, Yates asks of Bruno:
Did he intend that there would be formed in the memory using these ever-changing combinations of astral images some kind of alchemy of the imagination, a philosopher’s stone in the psyche through which every possible arrangement and combination of objects ini the lower world – plants, animals, stones – would be perceived and remembered? And that, in the forming and reforming of the inventor’s images in accordance with the forming and reforming of astral images on the central wheel, the whole history of man would be remembered from above, as it were, all his discoveries, thoughts, philosophies, productions?
Such a memory would be the memory of a divine man, of a Magus with divine powers through his imagination harnessed to the workings of the cosmic powers. And such an attempt would rest on the Hermetic assumption that man’s mens is divine, related in its origin to the star-governors of the world, able both to reflect and to control the universe.
– Yates, The Art of Memory (pp.220-1)
Coleridge was well acquainted with the works of Giordano Bruno, and it from the former’s work that Raine (and Collins) derive their own definition of the symbolic. Raine quotes Coleridge positing the symbol expresses “the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it representative.” Perhaps a synergy can be perceived here with Bruno’s ‘shadows’?
Although there is evidently a lot more work to be done in this area (I am definitely no Romantic scholar, and am behind on contemporary critiques of Yates’ interpretation of Bruno), it seems tantalising that a conceptual line could possibly be plotted from Agrippa’s tripartite world, through the memory theatres of Giordano Bruno, the Romantic imagination, and thence to the imaginal theatres of Collins and Redgrove.
I am intensely a believer in Romanticism because Romanticism is one of the protections of the soul through one of the darkest rationalistic periods of the nineteenth century. People don’t yet understand the significance of the Romantics – that they kept the soul alive. […] Frankly, without the Romantics I don’t think the soul would have made contact with the twentieth century.
– Cecil Collins
Speaking of Redgrove, Layla and I recently recorded this track, inspired by his Dr. Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit: