James Britton’s Literature in its Place begins by invoking John Stuart Mill’s definition of imagination: “that which enables us, by a voluntary effort, to conceive the absent as if it were present, the imaginary as if it were real, and to clothe it with feelings which, if it were indeed real, it would bring along with it.” Mill later glosses it as “the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another.” He might as easily have used Percy Shelley’s definition from Defence of Poetry, but the first chapter leans heavily on the anti-romantics, like Eliot, Pound, and Auden. I remember being struck, while reading Eliot’s critical articles on Shelley, that Eliot seemed to damn the qualities in Shelley that were distinctly apparent in his own poetry. In this context, Harold Bloom’s Oedipal hypotheses don’t seem too far off the mark. Similarly, Britton invokes the ghost of Shelley without ever mentioning his name.
Seen in such severely logical terms, I don’t think anyone could doubt that imagination is an essential element in the powers of perception and cerebration that characterize the human mentality, and not a special gift, bestowed only upon writers, painters, and other artists. And then, like so many of our abilities, we have to admit that it grows above all from use— from use in ever wider and more complicated areas of our concern. (vii)
Amen. I particularly like his nominalization cerebration. It is homophonic with celebration, and should be a synonym, at least when approached with the fervor of Shelley. Literature in its Place is a short little book, and I want to make some notes as I read through it. Britton makes an interesting case for the utility of imagination as a driving force for the foundation of identity, and the development of language skills. It starts, as many works on rhetoric do, with cognitive research regarding the acquisition of language by children.
One of the most common observations by people I meet, regarding my personality, is: “You’re so creative.” I’m never sure what to say about that. I firmly believe that everyone is. They just don’t label it as such, and perhaps don’t flex it quite as often. I suspect there are cultural reasons why cerebration— for most people— is not equivocal with celebration. This isn’t the case when we are growing up.