Literary intellectuals investigate the power imagination gives us to pose unending questions about our world—viewing religion, philosophy, and science as literary genres full of metaphors.

The Opposable Thumb at the End of the Imagination

One doesn’t say it out loud because it’s rare
For anyone to be willing to say it,
Because it’s the equivalent of buying billboard space to display it …
—Frederick Seidel, “Broadway Melody”  

“There is no truth.” What could that mean? Why should anybody say it?
Actually, almost nobody (except Wallace Stevens) does say it.
—Richard Rorty, Introduction to Truth and Progress

It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.
—Wallace Stevens, “On the Road Home”

Who are “literary intellectuals”? What do they do and how might they help us make our way in this “post-truth” world?

In “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre” (2000), the late twentieth-century philosopher Richard Rorty names many things literary intellectuals are not or do not do. He says they do not seek universal “true beliefs” to which all reasonable people should adhere. They do not seek an intimate relationship with a non-human deity. They do not identify themselves using shibboleths like “What is Being?” or “What is human nature?” They do not think there is “a natural terminus to inquiry” where we will reach our destination in Elysian fields of transcendental ideals.

They do not, like philosophers, seek to consummate “a cognitive relation to propositions.” They do not imagine Socratic debate, Cartesian doubt, Kantian categories, Hegelian dialectics, empirical science, or math will someday discover the “really real.” They slough off, drop, and abandon definitions and criteria once considered stable. 

Literary intellectuals have said goodbye to all that.

Rorty writes: “Intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature.”

What hasn’t changed, even for the earthbound pragmatist Rorty, is talk of redemption. The sort of redemption literature offers, however, is something beyond belief. He says, “Expanding the limits of the human imagination steps forward to assume the role that obedience to the divine will played in a religious culture, and the role that discovery of what is really real played in a philosophical culture.”

He calls this commitment to humanistic imaginative fallibilism progress, “a process of gradually increasing self-reliance.” Literary culture, thus, thrives in the aftermath of religious and philosophical quests for certainty. 

Defining things in the negative is a useful tool to remove obstructions, but we need other instruments to make something out of what remains.

So, what might we, as literary intellectuals, do? What should we value? Where do we find our satisfactions? Or, as the American Modernistpoet Wallace Stevens asks at the end of “The American Sublime,” “What wine does one drink? / What bread does one eat?”

Read “Dewey and Rorty: Sending Pragmatist Hopes in New Directions

Art Is a Tool That Transforms Us

Literature and the arts, as social, communal, and democratic practices, can help wean us from our dependency on inherited faith-based vocabularies and promote humanistic self-reliance. They allow us imaginative, empirical access to—and a chance to aggregate—strangers’ experiences immediately, sympathetically, intellectually, and intuitively.

The arts can often make us aware of our unexamined prejudices and beliefs better than argument can.

In Art as Experience (1934), pragmatist philosopher John Dewey says there is “something mystical” in the ways art subtly reorients how we define ourselves in relation to others and our world of “facts.” “Barriers are dissolved,” he says, and “limiting prejudices melt away.” He metaphorizes art as an “unlimited envelop.” In its expansive folds, we experience an “insensible” blending and fusing of attitudes.

Dewey is fascinated with art’s mystical aspects, but his aesthetics are this-worldly.

Art, he says, is an activity of biological organisms interacting with nature, as nature. Art objects are a way we organize “energies” into “stuff.” A painting is “pigments placed on canvas.” Literature is “just so many words, spoken and written.” An object becomes art, then, when it is “matter adequately formed.” 

Art and artists fashion beautiful things from earthy resources. These evoke emotions, memories, and speculations. When artists form matter others find beautiful or moving, we call our talk about our taste for beauty “aesthetics.” In such talk, we find pleasure and communion. The experience of a beautiful thing seizes us; then it animates us. It attunes us with an ineffable sense of something sublime, which Dewey calls a “whole not yet articulated.” This powerful visceral yet mysterious effect of art puts us in a mood. Mood “is a bounding horizon,” yet it does not confine. “It moves as we move,” he writes, and “[w]e are never wholly free from the sense of something that lies beyond.” This “beyond” is our approach to the limits of the imagination.

Being in an aesthetic mood leads us to engage with others in conversational acts of aesthetic description and discrimination, which, Dewey says “is a matter of communication and participation in values of life by means of the imagination.”

These values—this taste for sharable aesthetic criteria—are preserved, conveyed, and extended by “masterpieces,” works considered worth discussing by those who think art makes life worth living. What we call masterpieces may change throughout individual lives, demographic shifts in cultures, and history.

Still, aesthetics is a tradition of valuing mastery and conferring with others about why we love the art we love.

Dewey notes that some consider literature and the arts inessential, like trifles and daydreams, “an escape from, or an adventitious decoration of, the main activities of living.” But for literary intellectuals, art is a necessity of life. We use art to consider questions and examine things that reason and belief haven’t, or don’t, or won’t. Thinking through art, like looking through an instrument, is vital for exploring the possibilities of ourselves and our imagination.

Art is a tool to experiment and test hypotheses in our never-ending inquiries, but art doesn’t calculate or categorize according to rules. It is, as the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson says in “Considerations by the Way” (1860), “description, or, if you please, celebration.”

Or, as Wallace Stevens, in his talk “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” (1942), notes, artists and poets don’t fix meanings: “To fix it is to put an end to it.” Art shakes people up, inspires them, and makes them want to change their lives. The artist, as what Stevens calls “un amoureux perpetuel of the world,” “transforms us into epicures.” The artist creates a “world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it” and give “life whatever savor it possesses.”

Read “While Art Unites, Beauty Transcends

Literary Intellectuals Unsettle All Things, Shift the Paradigms

In Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), Rorty argues that propagating aesthetic values may begin as classroom instruction, but it is more than the mere tutelage of scholars making methodical arguments about what is important. It is something contagious. Inspired interpretations engender further inspired interpretations.

A literary intellectual’s reading of a work of art is a public hypothesis. 

Good ones provide useful criteria others can test—verify or falsify—in their own experience. More than that, interpretation and discussion are collaborative ways art works through us. They invite others into one’s mood of being “enraptured or destabilized” by “an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso.” This is the romance of intimate, permeating relations with others and their aesthetic sensibilities. It is the cultivation of a taste for the new, unfamiliar, or unprecedented as much as for reconsidering canonical masterpieces.

Literary intellectuals model what it’s like to love art that alters one’s self-conception and life goals. They arouse others to find art that will rearrange their own principles, priorities, and purposes.

There is a social or public component to aesthetic germination, yet the romance of literary redemption is usually an intimate affair between individuals, one of whom might be long dead. This romance is not, as Rorty says, a fantasy where one is “tempted by dreams of an escape from time and chance.” Instead, it is an all-consuming passion to face the present limits of imagination.

As lovers, we want to explore how those “limits are capable of being extended forever.”

As literary intellectuals, we investigate the power imagination gives us to pose different questions about ourselves, our world, and our future. We read religion, philosophy, and the sciences as literary genres chock full o’ metaphors. We understand some “true” stories were justifications for why some had rights and powers others didn’t. We may prefer to imagine other ways to flourish on this planet.

We’re happy to seed the earth with new metaphors as others wither.

For we literary intellectuals, there is freedom in confessing our human quests for certainty and power have actually been fictive acts of imagination. Imagination has always striven to pave paths toward redemption, even if many of those directed us to dead ends. In a sense, then, literary intellectuals will keep doing what human beings have always done: devise and revise stories about our existence and experience in nature and in culture.

From now on, though, we might emphasize the diversity of human beings’ insights and stop, as Rorty says, “pretending that they all carry a single truth deep in their bosoms.” A literary culture’s great virtue, he claims, is telling “young intellectuals that the only source of redemption is the human imagination.” This, he contends, “should occasion pride rather than despair.”

Yet the temptation to despair remains a hazard of the profession.

Read “On the Something There Is

There Are No Adequate Descriptions of Experience

How does one think about the endless conflicts about Truth? What is there to savor? And how does one feel about it all?

The poet I love best, and who calls me to celebrate the things of this world most, is Wallace Stevens. In his poems, one experiences directly the despair and exhilaration of freeing oneself from old dependencies. His poems inspire one to reorient one’s ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling. They animate the reader with their moods and attune one to the “beyond” lighting a path to the limits of the imagination. They transform one into un amoureux perpetuel who, accompanying Stevens, describes and celebrates what it is like to make inquiries without end.

Stevens goes beyond Rorty’s insistence that ironists, poets, and literary intellectuals are in the business of redescribing and coming up with new metaphors. Stevens imagines imagination to be like nature, germinating wildly, growing, forming symbiotic relationships, fostering life here, ending it there. He also imagines it to be like the sun. It lights what it happens to light. Its lighting is its description, celebration. Things can be considered in as many ways as light moves.

Stevens attempts to think and write without metaphor or simile. He tries, like the sun, to see and describe a thing as it is. He wants to be the voice of “pure experience.” Especially in his later poems, he reaches for an immediate language of directly-experienced relations, even if that might not finally be possible for a human creature who wants to continue to communicate with others. This is a biological limit to the power of our imagination.

For Stevens, a poem is sometimes a universal stripping tool. It can remove accretions of history, philosophy, religion, science—anything and everything that obscures what is.

He wants, as he says in a letter (Oct. 28, 1942), to “take the varnish and dirt of generations off a picture” so as to “see it in its first idea” and be “a thinker of the first idea.” In his poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” clearing off prior constraints of knowledge is the way to become “ignorant.” Only the ignorant person can stand under the sun, see it, see what it shows, and understand that the myths mortals have spun about it have spun out.

To use art to purge heaven and earth of transcendental referents may feel like an Edenic expulsion, but it allows new ways of imagining to take root and blossom. Values and meanings are always evolving—emerging, decaying, and re-emerging. In Stevens’ poems, imagination gets to work resolving the chaos of the cosmos into a habitable “home.” Still mysterious, home becomes cozier, richer, more communal and inviting, and endlessly, superlatively creative.

Stevens’ poem, “The Plain Sense of Things,” takes us to the limit of imagination. Stevens often invites us to share his fluctuating moods of hope and despair, which are always keyed to the seasons. Here, the joys of spring, the flourishing of summer, and the vivid panoramas of fall have turned into a nothingness-mood of winter. This is the “after” where Stevens finds himself:

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

The scene is numbing; his assessment of it, nihilistic. There is a sense of abandonment after the Wordsworthian physical delights of the natural environment offered are gone. Stevens faces this bare world as it is as he attempts to comprehend where one is and what one is.

This “return to a plain sense of things” may not be as epic as Odysseus’s nostos, yet it is heroic. To return home “to a plain sense” after the comforts of a temptation-filled journey can feel disappointing. If a dormant plainness awaits us at the end of the imagination, why not remain in the lotusland of reverie? 

But so much depends upon the mood of Stevens’ “as if.” This sense of finding oneself “as if ” at “an end of imagination” feels like langweile, a tediousness. This dullness sits there, immune to romanticism, “inanimate in an inert savoir.” The poet-hero returns not to a great kingdom of nostalgic fantasies but to the actual.

Plain the sense of things may be, but there is nothing plain in the etymological overkill of this line.

Instead of a mythic paradise at the end of his quest, Stevens finds himself among words, trying to use them to describe experience that doesn’t seem worth celebrating.

The knowledge he is coming to is not like the ascetic enlightenment of the Greeks’ sophia or the austere, Stoic Roman sapientia. It resides in the decadent Old French savoir. The Latin and French have a sense of knowing or of know-how, of discernment, wisdom, or good taste, of essaying, trying out, or noticing, but also of having a flavor (sapiō). Each, too, implies being in a mood. In this mood of dormancy, however, all is sans saveur—there is nothing to savor. One experiences a muted inertia realizing one’s old fanciful descriptions do not match what exists.

One is bereft, stultified. This feels unpleasant and paralyzing.

Finding himself in this state, Stevens doesn’t capitulate. He continues to muse about his condition, to consider how things defy our description and resist our seeing them as other than they are:

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

Il est difficile de savoir . . . . Stevens drifts among the poverty of descriptors. The cold is a _________.  This mood of sadness might have always been lurking there, masked by the artifice of our old fideistic tropes and rational justifications. Seasonal comforts are gone, along with one’s grandiose bourgeois, exotic aspirations.

Confessing the contingency of things disorients. There is a feeling of loss in finally seeing things as they are. Stevens catalogs his disappointments:

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

But it is only a “fantastic effort” that has failed. This self-pitying ennui, the malaise about the mere mortality of all things, is, too, but fancy, the kind of thing to which literary intellectuals might say goodbye. Fancy fades in the light of imagination.

In the midst of this mood, the first stanza’s resigned minor mode of “as if” makes a redemptive, epiphanic major modulation into the “yet” of the penultimate stanza:

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass . . . .

If it is difficult to find the adjective, it is because our inherited descriptions and comparisons are mediated by the shreds and patches of metaphors. They try to get things “right” and discover their “true essence” but end up producing spectres and counterfeits. Our descriptions try to fit everything to our scale. We describe what we want to see, or how we have been taught to see. Stevens wants to tack a course to the shores of plain sense.

Read “An Ironist Must Learn to Listen Poetically

Imagination Is What Survives

And yet … this apprehension of the inadequacy of our language and logic to describe whatever “reality” is strikes us as invigorating. Making sense of things is what we do. We do that in one mood or another. Maybe there is no final sense to be made. Maybe claims to certainty and the desire to “make sense” are the dying phenomenological breath of metaphysics. 

As it turns out, there is no end of, or limits to, what the imagination can imagine. It survives its own imagined death. It rises from its own ashes. It lights our path.

From the imagined absence of imagination, Stevens leaps directly to “the plain sense” of “the great pond.” This may remind us of naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s investigations, descriptions, celebrations, and speculations about his great pond in Walden (1854). Thoreau remains amused by stories people pass on about Walden Pond. He writes: “It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.” Thoreau takes the trouble to sound it. He finds its bottom yet is still “thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol.”

He asks, “What if all ponds were shallow? Would it not react on the minds of men?” Thoreau understands the pragmatic value of fantasy and fiction.

“Nature puts no questions and answers none which we mortals ask,” says Thoreau. 

Stevens reaches the point of asking no questions, seeking no answers. As soon as he appreciates that imagining the absence of imagination requires imagination, he immediately makes a metaphor true to that experience.

Stevens’ experience, as poet, has become the “same” as that of a “great pond.” His body and mind are infused among environmental elements. The poet is like the sun, which lights what it lights, and like the great pond, which reflects what it reflects. If there is nothing to reflect, it does not feel distraught or concoct stories for its own metaphysical solace. It rejects nothing as unworthy of reflection. What reflects on its surface is not of its own making, choice, or will. Neither is their absence. It exists and reflects without mortal feelings, hopes, fears, judgment, presumption, dogma . . . or even imagination.

For Stevens, imagination is our tool, our path, our way of being, and our fate. It is vital to all our analysis of our experience—accurate or inaccurate, artistic or scientific. We have no choice but to use it, even if we deny we are using it because we are speaking and seeking “Truth.” Even logic is at play in the fields and ponds of imagination. For Stevens, making peace with the fact of our fictions is redemptive.

Listen to “Scientific Knowledge Is Metaphorical” 

Imagination’s Fate

In his commonplace book, the Adagia (1957), Stevens aphorizes his theories about poetry as “the supreme fiction” able to replace the worn-out old ones. These feel most vital to his aesthetics of the imagination:

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being
nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.

After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as
life’s redemption.

Stevens attempts to see our grandest imaginings for what they are: fictions. Yet, using fictions, imagination, metaphors, concepts, theories, analysis, categories, and faith as tools—and arguing about how best to use them—is, as it turns out, what our hippocampus has evolved to do.

We describe and redescribe, mythologize and demythologize, synthesize theses and antitheses. This is who we are, what we are. What difference would it make either to call all this “human nature” or to reject the concept? 

As Rorty writes in “Inquiry as Recontextualization” (1991), “This would be like saying that the desire to use an opposable thumb remains characteristically human. We have little choice but to use that thumb, and little choice but to employ our ability to recontextualize.”

Attempting to “see” what exists without an imagination informed by any old final vocabularies, to be like a pond reflecting whatever happens to wander by—even imagining the possibility of a world without imagination—is impossible without imagination. At the end of “The Plain Sense of Things,” we stand with Stevens, satisfied with our inexactnesses, listening as the pond is

                 expressing silence
Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

We have made a journey from inanimate to inert to inevitable, required, and necessity, perhaps becoming, once again, subjects to Ananke, the ancient goddess of what is inevitable.

To escape either existential despair or metaphysical hope and find redemption at the limits of the imagination requires, for Stevens, being in an aesthetic mood for fictions.

To arrive at one’s final destination, at the limits of imagination, is to find one has gone nowhere and everywhere, traversed the sacred and the mundane. The inevitable, necessary final belief is “to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else.” Poets, pragmatists, literary intellectuals, and ironists, happy to feel at home on this planet in our ever-expanding cosmos can appreciate the value and mood of Stevens’ “exquisite truth.”

Why not savor our intensest rendezvous where the world imagined is the only good?

Rick Joines

Rick was born into a family of moonshiners, railroad men, and unionized ALCOA factory workers in the foothills of the Smokies. He grew up in Nashville. He lived in Kentucky, Florida, and Alabama before, like Davy Crockett, ending up in Texas, where he teaches literature and writing, writes about literature and philosophy, and occasionally makes poems.

One thought on “The Opposable Thumb at the End of the Imagination

  • Thank you. I really enjoyed that.


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