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Imagination under Pressure, 1789~1832:
Aesthetics, Politics, and Utility

by John Whale

Chapter One: Burke and the Civic Imagination


  1. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France Burke politicises and depoliticises the imagination. Imagination is depicted as obscuring the power relations which underpin the workings of the state and as maintaining the status quo through a pleasing state of false consciousness. In his defence of British liberty and in his attack upon the new French constitution, Burke highlights imagination's central role in the formation of ideology.[1] In its famous aestheticisation of politics the Reflections at the same time exposes and celebrates the mechanism of a faculty which keeps the naked workings of power from the ordinary citizen.[2] In this sense, imagination for Burke may be said to be symptomatic of civil society itself. It is the faculty which provides the citizen's perception of the benefits of being in civil society as distinct from a state of nature. And in this peculiarly powerful double-take imagination is charged with carrying out a seemingly impossible task: of providing the subject with a sense of self-consciousness of his role in the body politic at the same time as pleasingly hiding from him the stark nature of the contract he has made with the state in order to enjoy the benefits of civil society.[3] This ideological doubling of imagination in Burke's Reflections is, of course, further complicated by the fact that the text's strategic epistolary rhetoric, as well as its most famous scenes of violation, at the same time appeal graphically to the imagination of its reader.

  2. At the outset of his career, Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) places a Lockean restriction on 'imagination': 'this power of the imagination is incapable of producing any thing absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses',[4] but this is immediately followed by an admission of the vast cultural territory available to this most ambivalent of faculties: 'Now the imagination is the most extensive province of pleasure and pain, as it is the region of our fears and our hopes, and of all our passions that are connected with them.'[5] Burke's writings of the 1790s place severe restrictions on those advocates of the rights of men who would attempt to rewrite government and social contracts - those artist revolutionaries who wish to create 'any thing absolutely new' or vary the disposition of prevailing ideas. At the same time these writings engage substantially with both ennobling and lurid forms of imagination.

  3. For these reasons, Burke provides a good starting-point from which to reassess the deployment of imaginations in the literature of the Romantic period. Over the last Wfteen years or so the workings of the literary imagination and their nineteenth- and twentieth-century constructions have been subject to a severe critique on the grounds that they represent a masking or repression of the workings of ideology. Burke, however, provides a powerful and resistant example of the way in which ideology functions in the same text through a combination of exposure and disclosure. Burke's text does not so easily accommodate itself to the charge laid against many texts of the English Romantic poets: that they compose an aesthetic or Romantic ideology,[6] whose deWning characteristic is that they claim to be non-ideological. Nor can it so easily beWtted to an act of contemporary historical criticism which too easily assumes that it can redeem the past's bad faith or expose its repressed unconscious.

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  5. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. (Reflections, p. 171[128])

    In his famous lament for the passing of the 'age of chivalry' at the heart of the Reflections Burke refers his reader in Swiftian terms to the 'superadded ideas' furnished from 'the wardrobe of a moral imagination'. In this strategic deployment of elegy Burke confirms the moral imagination's central place in the formation of civilization. All the benefits of culture, convention, and custom operate through the workings of this faculty which seems to offer to the subject a comforting self-consciousness. A naked nature is raised 'to dignity in our own estimation'. In comparison, the false metaphysics of the 'rights of man' only exposes the stark reality of his own first nature. And, as the Swiftian clothes analogies make only too clear,[7] that aboriginal nature is distinctly shameful. The subject position offered here by Burke is characteristically complex. He reminds his reader of the dangers of returning to a state of nature and of the ennobling qualities of civilised, civil society without, at least at this point in his text, quite announcing the renunciation which must take place between the subject and state in order that the former benefit from all those super-added ideas. The subject nature of the individual in civil society, his contractual liberty, is enacted and projected through the imagination. As such, imagination's role in Burke's ideology of constitutional freedom is as agent and as consolation. The aesthetic politics of Burke's 'second nature'[8] use the threat of a violent return to the aboriginal chaos and the naked shame of a bare-forked animal alongside the distracting ornament of the pleasing forms of society because the other threat they have to address is the power relation informing the contract with society. And, as he confronts the formation of a false constitution in revolutionary France, Burke must make evident the nature of the citizen or subject's position in relation to the pleasing 'authority' of the British kingdom. Authority stripped of its aestheticisation is real power which might have to manifest itself as sovereign will and naked force if circumstances make it necessary. With this in mind, the sense of beauty, elegance, and glory which permeates Burke's account of the British constitution seems to offer a form of recompense for the threat of state violence which lurks behind it.[9]

  6. This underlying sense of necessity and the potential threat of punitive state power is even evident in Burke's Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. As is so often the case, the examples and metaphors chosen in a work of philosophical enquiry are revealing. In Burke's case it is as if punishment of a particularly heavy state kind has at some point to work its way into his text. It cannot remain absolutely hidden. A number of his examples seem to suggest that punishment is never far away from his descriptions of pain, pleasure, and power.

  7. For instance, when he describes the tremendous effect tragedy can have on an audience, Burke suddenly undermines the power of art by reference to the most exemplary, authoritative, and final kind of catastrophe that the state can muster:

    Chuse a day on which to represent the most sublime and affecting tragedy we have; appoint the most favourite actors; spare no cost upon the scenes and decorations; unite the greatest efforts of poetry, painting and music; and when you have collected your audience, just at the moment when their minds are erect with expectation, let it be reported that a state criminal of high rank is on the point of being executed in the adjoining square; in a moment the emptiness of the theatre would demonstrate the comparative weakness of the imitative arts, and proclaim the triumph of real sympathy. (Enquiry, p. 47)

    As well as interrupting his assessment of tragedy with this awareness of the popular 'reality' of execution (thought to be based on that of Lord Lovat) Burke also refers, in anticipation of Foucault, to the spectacular death performed on the body of Robert Frances Damien, would-be assassin of Louis xv. He also refers his reader to the extraordinary mental and facial capacity of the philosopher Tomasso Campanella who could apparently enter the minds of his subjects by mimicking their facial and bodily states, thereby confirming Burke's thesis about the close connection between body and mind and the power of sympathetic feeling which runs throughout the Enquiry. As Burke informs us, the ultimate test of such skill for the unfortunate Campanella came on the rack in a Naples prison.

  8. More significantly, both the sublime and the beautiful are defined in Burke's Enquiry as states of subjection and domination. To claim that Burke's treatise on the sublime deals in passive states of mind is hardly surprising. After all, the most famous passages in the book articulate most forcefully the prepossessing and dominating power of sublimity. '[A]stonishment,' Burke writes, 'is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.'[10] Similarly: 'There is something so over-ruling in whatever inspires us with awe, in all things which belong ever so remotely to terror, that nothing else can stand in their presence.'[11] That the effect of beauty is also 'prepossessing' tells us something more about this text's general level - that its domain is human nature, not social custom. More interesting, I think, than the by now familiar redefinitions of Burke's binary distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, however they are formulated - masculinity/femininity; individual/social; heroic/domestic; war/peace - is the recognition that both terms in each case involve a disabling passivity.

  9. When Burke defines beauty in Part One of the Enquiry, in the section on 'Power', the comparison with sublimity forces out an expected opposition which would encourage a gendered reading of the text's basic distinction: sublimity is about being dominated, beauty is about dominating:

    Again, we know by experience, that for the enjoyment of pleasure, no great efforts of power are at all necessary; nay we know, that such efforts would go a great way towards destroying our satisfaction: for pleasure must be stolen, and not forced upon us; pleasure follows the will; and therefore we are generally affected with it by many things of a force greatly inferior to our own. But pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior, because we never submit to pain willingly. (Enquiry, p. 65)

    In Part Three, where the attention is focused more directly on the definition of beauty, Burke is determined to place the effect of the beautiful at a pre-rational level so that its effect is immediate and 'natural' even to the extent of bypassing the will: 'It is not by the force of long attention and enquiry that we find any object to be beautiful; beauty demands no assistance from our reasoning; even the will is unconcerned.'[12] And later in the Enquiry, when he wishes to dislocate beauty from utility or 'fitness', Burke goes further, claiming a divine power in the objects which generate a sense of the beautiful: a power which puts us, as rational beings, directly at the mercy of such objects. Static materialism is given the ultimate divine sanction:

    Whenever the wisdom of our Creator intended that we should be affected with any thing, he did not confide the execution of his design to the languid and precarious operation of our reason; but he endued it with powers and properties that prevent the understanding, and even the will, which seizing upon the sense and imagination, captivate the soul before the understanding is ready either to join with them or to oppose them. (Enquiry, p. 107)

  10. Such immediate responses short-circuit or preempt 'judgement' - that rationalistic, discriminating comparison and choice between effects which is to be expected from Burke's man of liberal and extensive views in a civilised society. In comparison with such a social view of 'taste', Burke argues that in the realm of the beautiful: 'Here to be affected, there is no need of the concurrence of our will.'[13]

  11. If there is some contradiction in the Enquiry as to the degree to which 'will' is involved in the response to beauty it is small in comparison to that which is generated in the Reflections by the crisis of the French Revolution. Here the conflict between freedom of response and absolute power is much more apparent and frequently has the effect of destroying the distinction between 'man in a state of nature' and 'man in civilised society'. Paradoxically, in order to support his own vision of a proper revolution Burke is in danger of breaking down his idea of social compact. While he attacks the revolutionaries in France for being savages and barbarians who tear away the 'decent drapery' of life, his own history of the age of chivalry depends on rather dubious outside forces. Under pressure to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Burke has to defer to 'necessity' and cannot for a moment afford to credit such momentous events to any individual will. The acceptance of William as king was not, according to Burke, 'properly a choice', but 'an act of necessity, in the strictest moral sense in which necessity can be taken'.[14] Similarly, 'a grave and overruling necessity obliged [the glorious revolutionary fathers] to take the step they took'.[15] 'Justa bella quibus necessaria', [16] he quotes approvingly from Livy.

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