Imagination as the poetics of cognition (and the genius of solitude)

Imagination as the poetics of cognition (and the genius of solitude)


When I finish my PhD, I’ll finally be able to use my love of research to write about truly interesting things.

One my next projects will be “Paid to Create” – which, originally was going to simply be about how to make money with your creativity, kind of a practical manifesto for this blog. However I’m realizing that won’t satisfy me, because there is so much amazing stuff to say about creativity, the process of creation, how to create things that have value and worth, and so much more.

I stumbled upon this paper today called “Imagination as the poetics of cognition” which resonated with me.

“Poetics” originally meant to make, to make well, to make well with words (we get “tech” from the same root, the tech of doing something well. Politics is doing the political well, poetics is using words well.)

But in this sense, the phrase “imagination as the poetics of cognition” means that imagination is the thing being produced by the “doingness” of thinking. Making things with the brain: pure, raw creation.

And this involves, in nearly all cases, courageous and audacious behavior, at great personal risk.

You need to leap into the space of what is not known, the place without rules or boundaries, to create something new, and this can be a terrifying and solitary journey.

Goethe’s Faust, the one seeking knowledge is warned:

No path! Into the un-enterable, Never to be entered: One path to the un-askable, Never to be asked: Are you ready? No locks, no bolts to manipulate, You’ll drift about in solitary space. Can you conceive the waste and solitary? Hast du Begriff von Oed’ und Einsamkeit ?

The paper connects Faust’s courage with the artistic act of creation:

Faust, presented as a skilful magician, alter ego of the artist, is said to be artful and daring; in other words, his mind is able to get beyond the pure images of nature and, following a principle claimed in the same period also by Lichtenberg and the brothers Grimm, he produces a creative symbolic integration in order to model form out of boundlessness: he imagines imagination.

I hadn’t realized, until just now, that my current work on Paradise Lost, concerning Satan as a revolutionary hero, is work that will be continued in my next book, Paid to Create (though now that I’ve realized it, I may need to change the title).

Because it’s not just about how to make money with your art, it’s about the value and praxis of imagination: how to be creative in a way that has impact, how to be truly creative. Satan jumping bravely into the abyss in John Milton’s Paradise Lost became the symbol of creative liberty for nearly two centuries, and was repeated in art and literature.

creation creativity

Creativity can be seen as evil for two reasons: it knows no rules or boundaries, so it’s liberal and unrestrained; and it’s profoundly personal. A life lived in isolation and solitude, wrestling through the void for your own discoveries, can be condemned by society, and often is, because few have the courage to endure it.

The other book I’m reading is something I discovered on Melville’s personal bookshelf. Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick has a lot in common with Milton’s Satan. Both are accused of Hubris or Pride, but this is a common claim against artists or writers who believe they can produce something of value through only the effort of their own dedication and perseverance.

The book is called The Genius of Solitude, it was published in 1867 by William Alger. The writing is enviable.

I haven’t read it all yet, but the passages I’ve read are stunning:

The penalty affixed to supremely equipped souls is that they must often be thus left alone on the cloudy eminence of their greatness, amidst the lightnings, the stars, and the canopy, commanding the sovereign prospects indeed, but sighing for the warm breath of the vale and the friendly embraces of men.

I’ve also not found a clean version of it, and it’s not available on Amazon, so I decided to edit and format the book and republish it myself. I have a feeling I’m going to be quoting from it a LOT. Here’s another passage… if you’re interested in the topic, the research, and in the Genius of Solitude, these are all things I’ll be working on later this year.

My entire thesis is about rebellion and resistance in the face of persecution; the fight for basic human rights.

The next book will be about going further. Resisting the status quo, journeying past comfort and safety, to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” This courageous adventure, creativity as revolution, has been sorely missed in the past few decades, since we no longer debate what we should do and just do whatever we can do (as long as it earns money). But as a personal journey, the leap into the unknown still has great power… how to embark and survive on this journey, and return home richer and wiser, will be the aim of Paid to Create.


The consciousness of thinking and feeling in unison

with a multitude, of believing doctrines and observing

rites in common with the great majority of our brethren,

yields to sympathetic genius an invisible, peace-giving

fellowship which causes an indescribable pleasantness to

breathe in the air, an infinite friendliness to saturate the

landscape. To abandon all the dear familiar beliefs and

associations in which one grew up, in allegiance to reason

to go exploringly forwards into the obscure future to find

some better substitutes, more divinely real and solid, is

to be, at least temporarily, like one who advances into

a cave in a mountain side ; the sight of the green fields,

the light of the sun, the sound of the waterfall, the bleat

of the goats, and the songs of the herdsmen, all becoming

fainter and fainter, until he is lost in darkness and silence.

It is impossible that severe pangs should not be involved

when conscience sternly orders a sensitive and clinging

soul to renounce prevalent creeds, to cast off current

prejudices and usages, to leave popular favor, estranged,

behind, and accept newly revealed and persecuted truth

with its austere duties. It is to undergo a coronation of

hate and agony, and, carrying a crucifix within the bosom,

journey on a lonesome way of dolor, publicly shrouded

in scorn, secretly transfigured with the smile of God.

The loneliest of all mortals are the pioneers of new prin-

ciples and policies, new faiths and feelings for they

alone have none on earth with whom they can hold

brotherhood of soul. Having emerged from the beliefs

in which they were educated, thrown away habituated

reliances, trusting themselves to original perception as

they advance into the unknown, out of which new reve-

lations are breaking on them, their solitude is sometimes

as appalling as the experience of one who for the first

time rides on a locomotive across a midnight prairie,

where, through the level gloom, he seems just plunging

off the world into banks of stars.

The genius of solitude (three orders of wretchedness)

The fool and the magician (cardinal sin of creativity)