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Imagination and Love

But as she wrote she saw in her mind's eye another man,
a phantom composed of her most passionate memories,
her most enjoyable books, and her strongest desires...

Madame Bovary

Stendhal, in his acclaimed essay on love, depicts the role of the imagination in the lover in what he calls the process of crystallization. Having observed salt mines in Salzburg, he says:
Leave a lover with his thoughts for twenty-four hours and this is what will happen: At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they pull it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit's claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one. (1957, 45)
Crystallization is the phenomenon that happens in the mind of the lover. And it is fueled by the imagination alone. Ask any old lover what he sees in his beloved and he will tell you of grand castles in the sky and of rainbows on end. That she has the the face of a babe, the figure of a ballerina, the grace of a dancer, the mind of a philosopher, the heart of a saint, the soul of an angel, a gift from God. Watch him gush and blush as he says all these fantastic things about her--and about how he has never been this lucky all his life. But now you are confused. You also know the girl. You're thinking: "Are we talking about the same person?"

Come on, she really can't be all that. True. But for the lover she is.

The infatuated lover cannot be infatuated if what infatuates him does not infatuate him. In short, she has to be perfect. Not perfect in the sense that she be without flaws; no. But perfect in the way that what she is--the good--and what she is not--the lack--all combine to create a perfectly imperfect beloved. Her lack, e.g., warts, clumsiness, temper, etc., are given a positive value or interpretation by the lover. This is why the freckles on her cheeks are now cute, her clumsiness funny and her tantrums human. And if her imperfections are suddenly transformed pleasantly, you can imagine how her good qualities become magnified under the eyes of the infatuated lover.

She will never be really perfect. So the lover's solution is to imagine her as perfect.

Aristotle believed that imagination (phantasia) lies between perceiving (aisthesis) and thinking (noesis). Between the immediacy of what I see and the delay of judgment in what I think is the tertium quid of what I imagine. As the Philosopher says in De Anima:
For imagination is different from either perceiving or discursive thinking, though it is not found without sensation, or judgment without it. That this activity is not the same kind of thinking as judgment is obvious (3.427b14-15).
Obviously, imagination is not sensual perception--what I imagine is not what I see otherwise I would have no need to imagine if I see it already. Aristotle further demonstrates the difference between the imagination and the sense of sight: sight is a faculty and seeing is an activity which imagination does not need, e.g., dreams; senses are always present while imagination is not; and sensations are always true (remember that Aristotle was an "empiricist") while imaginations may be false (428a5-12). The point is this: it takes hard work to imagine and continue imagining, and more than that, I am always in danger of making a mistake.

Imagining is also not yet thinking (having an "opinion" or knowledge). Knowledge is arrived by belief--"for without belief in what we opine we cannot have an opinion"--and belief by conviction in that I hold it to be true, and conviction by the discourse of reason in that I think it to be true (428a20-24). Easily, what I imagine may in fact pass the first test--the test of reason--in that I imagine that what I think is true; but you are already walking on shaky ground here. For I need not imagine something to be true if I already think it to be true. What is more, by the very nature of what we imagine, e.g., possibilities, fancies, dreams, I cannot without lying turn them into convictions or beliefs. Into hope, perhaps. But hope by itself is a problem that we need not go to in detail.

Where does imagination then stand if it is neither no longer perception or not yet reflection? The clear-headed Aristotle will clearly insist since it is not to be found in either fact or knowledge, then, might as well dismiss it all the same--"Imagination is therefore neither any one of the states enumerated, nor compounded out of them" (428b9). The lover then is either just dreaming or is being deceived.

But, to be sure, that would be the last thing that the lover will think of, say, or admit. He knows. He feels it in his bones. He never saw a truth this clear, he never had an experience this strong. He will insist that he is not imagining things when he sees his beloved studded with all these sparkling crystals. He will tell you that this is real.

Because, in fact, those crystals are real--not real in the perceived sense (it cannot be seen) or in the thoughtful sense (it cannot be known). But real in the sense that matters the most to the eye of the lover: in its imaginary sense. The imaginary as the most real? Yes. Because love can make it real as only love can make her perfect.


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