“The imagination is where the world can have a sort of spiritual home in us, and for that same reason is what allows us to have a home in the world.”
In an essay on the enduring significance of Dante, the poet Paul Claudel wrote of the age that had just passed: “The crisis that reached its peak in the nineteenth century . . . was the drama of a starved imagination.”1 It may strike us as odd to show such concern over what would seem to be nothing more than a faculty of aesthetic creativity in relation to an age in which man was being radically redefined in abstraction from any supernatural destiny or transcendent horizon of meaning, when an anti-human industrialization grew with the waning of an organic and cultural Christian faith, which left the West vulnerable to the two World Wars. But what is at stake in the imagination is in truth far more than a mere aesthetic faculty, conventionally understood. The imagination is, if not the center of the human being, then nevertheless that without which there can be no center, for it marks the point of convergence at which the soul and body meet; it is the place where faith in the incarnate God becomes itself incarnate and therefore truly becomes faith; it is—pace Hegel—where reason becomes concrete, and the bodily life of the senses rises to meet the spirit. It lies more deeply than the sphere of our discrete thoughts and choices because it is the ordered space within which we in fact think and choose. Far more than a mere faculty, the Christian imagination is a way of life, and this is because we might say it represents the point of intersection between Christianity and the world. In this case, a starved imagination represents a crisis indeed.
Now, it is no doubt the case that the almost maniacal multiplication of images in the technological explosion of thetwentieth century has done nothing to nourish the imagination, but instead has fed it with unwholesome food. But it is not enough simply to issue a call for the re-invigoration of the imagination or for the Christianization of the media. We need instead to address the problem at its roots. I propose that one of the sources of the starved imagination lies in the general impoverishment of the notion of truth, through which all our human experience is mediated and thus formed. In the present context, it is of course not possible to lay out a satisfactory argument regarding the history of the notion of truth, so I will instead offer a philosophical reflection on one aspect of the issue, though it may initially seem tangential to the question of the health of the imagination. I intend to reflect on the transformation of the notion of causality in the seventeenth century and what this transformation implies for the significance of sense experience, which represents of course the foundation of the imagination. My thesis is that a mechanistic conception of the natural world evacuates sense experience of meaning, and therefore that the effort to cultivate the Christian imagination will be vain unless it is accompanied by a recovery of the ontological significance of goodness and beauty and thus by a critique of the popular view of the world inherited from classical physics. This is a task we might call a “reimagining of the natural world.”
1. Paul Claudel, “Introduction à un poème sur Dante,” in Positions et propositions (Paris: Gallimard, 1928), 174–175. For an English translation, see “Religion and the Artist: Introduction to a Poem on Dante,” Communio: International Catholic Review 22, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 357–367.