Stevens on Pascal in “Imagination as Value”


What originally drew me to a discussion on Pascal was Wallace Stevens’s essay “Imagination as Value,” which I believe is able to serve as a bridge between Stevens’s ideas of performative imagination and those of Jean Genet. In “Imagination as Value,” Stevens argues against Pascal’s conception of the imagination as “the deceptive element in man, the mistress of error and duplicity” (724), offering instead the primacy of imagination to reality and suggesting that the role of imagination is in fact essentially productive. Whereas Claes in his post focused on topics provoked in part by Pascal’s image of the magistrate, and though Stevens does touch on these topics as well, I will focus for now on Stevens’s discussion of the second imaginative figure mentioned by Pascal, the physician, and its linking of imagination to science.

Let’s start with Pascal’s initial argument against both magistrate and physician as practitioners of deception:

If magistrates had true justice, and if physicians had the true art of healing, they would have no occasion for square caps; the majesty of these sciences would of itself be venerable enough. But having only imaginary knowledge, they must employ those silly tools that strike the imagination with which they have to deal; and thereby in fact they inspire respect. (Pascal, Pensée 82)

For Pascal, the physician, like the lawyer and the magistrate, is a public servant–not a scientist. Science needs no costume. But for Stevens in the modern day, these ideas have become rather mixed: “if [Pascal] felt in his day that medicine was an imaginary science, he would not feel so today” (725). It is this intertwining between pageantry and science that elevates Stevens’s conception of the imagination. Stevens takes the instance of Pascal’s ‘imaginary’ doctors and treats it as an empirical case of performance becoming reality, peagantry leading to rigor and fact. The costumed promise of the healer, the image, has allowed the practice of the healer, the reality, to arise and refine. Stevens’s use of the word science here, taken with the rest of his essay, extends the argument into a profoundly new direction.

Further on in the essay, while discussing Freud, Stevens returns to this idea of science:

“If when the primacy of the intelligence has been achieved, one can really say what a man is actually like, what could be more natural than a science of illusions? Moreover, if the imagination is not quite the clue to reality now, might it not become so then? As for the present, what have we, if we do not have science, except the imagination? And who is to say of its deliberate fictions arising out of the contemporary mind that they are not the forerunners of some such science? (728)

What this series of rhetorical questions works up is a rather nice variation on the performative function of imagination as discussed by Pascal. The original, and directly discussed case, is that of the magistrate, who in donning the image of power, makes his power an immediate social fact; ‘might’ either works with or against the ability to sustain this power, but the image itself is nonetheless complete, a separate tool in its own right. The case of the physician, however, Stevens sees as functioning differently.The image of the ‘healer’ (leaving aside the shamanistic idea of ‘healers’ whose image would probably function more along the lines of the magistrate) is not immediately productive. The image of the healer instead creates a lack in the society for the real ‘healer’ and thus, being named and positioned within the culture, becomes an idea that can be objectively striven for. Unlike the magistrate, the image of the healer has not led towards further, grander images of the healer, but instead towards an investigation into the practices, or science, of the healer. Whether the magistrate can function like this as well (as producing an image of a ‘ruler’ while likewise provoking society towards a want of ‘ruling’) I will leave for others to discuss, and vice versa for the physician, and though both kinds of image can appear simultaneously, I hold to the notion that there are two separate wells being drawn from. In Stevens’s use of the term imagination, and in his ideas about poetry at large, I believe that the physician’s model of imaginative performance, of image creating a lack to be strived against, of imagination creating opportunity for reason to restructure itself, that is most pertinent and possibly the one more powerfully experienced by the poet himself.

There is much more to be said following from this initial definition, and a number of discussions that will follow concerning the image of the poet, Jean Genet, and further theory, but for the present I think this definition shall stand alone. As a final note, let us keep in mind the grandness of Stevens’s scope: “The operation of the imagination in life is more significant than its operation in or in relation to works of art” (733) and “the truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them” (738). “If this is true,” he goes on to say, “then reason is simply the methodizer of imagination” (738).

David Feil

“Imagination as Value” was originally read by Stevens as a lecture at Columbia University’s English Instutute in 1948. All page numbers refer to the subsequent essay as printed in Collected Poetry and Prose, Library of America, ISBN: 1883011450. It is also available as part of the collection of Stevens’s essays published under the name The Necessary Angel.


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