Being and the Imaginary
This investigation outlines and applies what I have termed Aesthetic Phenomenology – a method of interdisciplinary criticism founded on the intersections of Martin Heidegger’s existential phenomenology, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, and Wolfgang Iser’s literary anthropology. This study traces the articulation of Dasein’s fundamental ontological structures outlined in Heidegger’s philosophy. A concern with Dasein and the issue of its Being, specifically in relation to the aesthetic, are prominently foregrounded in many works of eighteenth-century and Romantic period English literature. Hence conceptions and investigations of the imagination become central during this period. Yet the idea of the imagination itself as a faculty is amended and supplemented when it is brought into play with what Iser terms “the imaginary,” which is conceived as the domain of possible worlds and modes of Being. In the first chapter, “Aesthetic Phenomenology: A Critical Encounter,” I outline how a phenomenologically grounded aesthetic must account for the interplay of the domains of the artist, artwork, and recipient in what I call an “aesthetic equation.” The second chapter, “Between Fundamental Ontology and the Imaginary: A Genealogy of Aesthetic Phenomenology,” traces the principle landmarks defining the topography of our investigation. “The Aesthetics of Insein” deals with how Being is projected and articulated in regards to Heidegger’s conceptions of “understanding,” “interpretation,” and “worlding,” as well as his distinction between the “real” and “reality.” “The Aesthetics of Attunement” is concerned with the opposition between everyday and authentic Being and the quality of aesthetic experience as both Erlebnis and Erfahrung. The aesthetic functions as an analogue to Heidegger’s conception of “conscience” as a “call” which leads to Being becoming “resolute” and taking up the path to its “authentic,” ownmost self and returning to its “there.” In “The Undiscovered Country and the Mortal Bourne: There Be Monsters,” I delve into the potentially negative side of the imaginary and discuss the implications of, and dangers inherent in, the transgressive qualities of the aesthetic. The writings of Samuel Johnson are explicitly guided by the ontological and moral issue of the choice of life. The first part of the chapter measures Johnson’s “ontological surveys,” which address Dasein’s range of possible attunements, specifically as conducted in the poems “London” (1738), “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), and “On the Death of Doctor Robert Levet” (1782). In “The Temporality of Idleness: Aesthetic Ramblers, Adventurers, and Idlers and the Issue of Authenticity,” I consider both the negative and positive aspects of idleness as attunement, which recurs in Johnson’s periodical essays. The next section, “The Domain of the Aesthetic in Johnson’s Criticism,” posits that for Johnson the aesthetic provides a realm wherein a range of possible projections of Being are disclosed. The final section, “The Devouring Imaginary and the Struggle of Resolution,” investigates the obverse side of Johnson’s relationship to the imagination and the imaginary. As the leading philosopher of the imagination in England during this period, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry and prose is directly engaged with the issue of Dasein’s ontological projection and the disclosure of horizons of Being. “The Imagination vs. the Imaginary,” deals first with what I term the “voluntary imagination” as it is revealed in Coleridge’s so-called “conversation poems” as a form of Erlebnis. The obverse side of the voluntary imagination is the “compulsory imaginary,” which in a form of experience conceived as Erfahrung, the contours and consequences of which are drawn out through a readings of “Fears in Solitude” (1798), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798 / 1834), and “Kubla Khan” (1797-1799?). The awareness of the failure of the imagination to order experience and life becomes evident in Coleridge’s “Black Period” poems: Dejection: An Ode (1802), Constancy to an Ideal Object (1804-7), Ne Plus Ultra (1811), and Limbo (1811). Here the imagination as creator and site of joy is replaced by the abyss of the imaginary. Coleridge’s imaginative failure eventuates his pursuit of what I call the “Philosophic Imaginary” – a process initiated in the Biographia Literaria (1817). The Coleridge section concludes with a consideration of the philosophic imaginary’s legacy as revealed in essays about Coleridge by Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Arthur Symons.