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· A Saving Imagination: The MLA's "Necessary Angel" ·

A year ago I shared an image in a holiday post entitled Christmas Light. The implied relationship expressed there between imagination and reason I thought to develop more fully today. I have marked it earlier in other posts, especially in Wilsonian Democracy, but I thought to define it with the explicit words of the twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens, this from his book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination. His words seemed particularly apt today.

 · Wallace Stevens · The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things. . . . We cannot look at the past or the future except by means of the imagination. . . . [The imagination] enables us to live our own lives. We have it because we do not have enough without it. . . . The imagination is the power that unables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos. . . . The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them. If this is true, then reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination. It may be that the imagination is a miracle of logic and that its exquisite divinations are calculations beyond analysis, as the conclusions of reason are calculations wholly within analysis. If so, one understands perfectly that "in the service of love and imagination nothing can be too lavish, too sublime or too festive." Wallace Stevens, 'Imagination as Value,' The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination, New York: Random House, 1951, 136, 144, 150, 153, 154.

I mention this because I'm off to one such "festive" occasion, the annual meeting, December 27 to 30, of the Modern Language Association in San Diego. This lavish professional conference annually draws thousands of teachers, readers, critics, and scholars who celebrate imaginative poetry, fiction, and drama in various forms of the critical-scholarly essay. You may ask how such folks add to the creative mix of such fare? Simply by sharing such loving "Festivals of Light" as wisely, generously, enthusiastically, and imaginatively as they can.

Naturally some will scoff at this view, saying with Scrooge, "Bah, Humbug," but even they are effectively open to the hope of "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."

Why else would MLAers have chosen Christmas-time to say that poetry, fiction, and drama are among our age's saving human graces!


You omit non-fiction as a proper study for MLA. Is it still not so? That preoccupation with the imaginative rather than the actual is one of the reasons I dropped my MLA membership years ago. Yet I doubt the accuracy of your triad; no Emerson? no Thoreau? no Margaret Fuller at MLA in this new feminist age? no Orwell in such an imperial epoch?

Meanwhile, about angels — necessary or un-: the ancient Hebrew word translated by King James' scholars as "angel" may also be translated as "stranger," usually "good stranger" or "stranger bearing good news," or so I'm told. With that definition, the whole New Testament makes sense as actual, literal history.

How does this reading of "angel" strike you, Styles? And, please, where is the necessary non-fiction at MLA?

Posted by
Mary Lee Donahue on January 5, 2004 10:01 AM

Your point is well-taken, especially since my membership has long included affiliations with such subdivisions as the Literature and Science Division and the MLA's Division of Autobiography, Biography, and Life Writing. We do include the real under the purview of the imaginative, of course, just as Jacob Bronowski does in his great 1967 essay, "The Reach of the Imagination." My thanks for your kind inquiries.

My thanks, too, for your word on angels. They are literal presences (as Jimmy Stewart might say) even in literary associations given necessarily to what I've called "critical-scholarly essays."

Posted by Styles on January 5, 2004 01:11 PM

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