Ashbery and Moral Imagination



Reading this amazing book called John Dewey and Moral Imagination by a scholar named Steven Fesmire, and I”m starting to feel like I am finding a potential route, path or road through the tangled thickets of scholarship that will soon be enwrapping me come August and the beginning of my PhD program at Case.  But it’s weird – sometimes the indicators of such a path are not whole books or whole essays (though of course they can be, too), but for me certain words, or in this case, this notion of the “moral imagination.”  It’s like some words leave me completely cold, and some words leave me sort of absurd with excitement, and I”m constantly on the lookout for those words, those terms, because typically it’s those constellations of words that generally and genuinely open up a scholarly area that I”ve been hunching on but not explicitly exploring or discovering in any overtly conscious sense.

I say all this in a wordy preamble because I think “moral imagination” is one of those words/terms that sort of sets me on fire.  And I can’t help but relate it to Ashbery’s poetics (other words that ignite my passion, curiosity, enthusiasm, etc.).  I guess my hunch is that, as Mark Johnson and George Lakoff have written, metaphors are not embellishments to language and thought, but instead compose and constitute our thought.  It’s a notion I’ve learned from Richard Rorty, the idea that language is essentially a process of alive metpahors coming to replace dead metaphors, like some vast linguistic coral reef.  And/but if this is true, that we think through metaphors, that we are constituted by the “metaphors we live by,” and that language is this vast process of metaphoric re-descriptions analagous to Kuhn’s scientific revolutions, then we have to place the poet, as Rorty did, in the position of a kind of cultural hero, because he or she is generating new metaphors in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari describe the philosopher as someone who generates new concepts.  

Let me back up.  What does Fesmire mean by the “moral imagination”?  Here is another writer, Thomas Alexander, whom Fesmire quotes in regards to defining and describing the imagination:

“It is a phase of activity…in which possible activities are envisaged in relation to our own situations, thereby amplifying the meaning of the present and creating the contexts from which present values may be criticized, thus liberating the course of action itself….Imagination is temporally complex, an operation in the present, establishing continuity with the past, anticipating the future, so that a continuous process of activity may unfold in the most meaningful and value-rich way possible.”

I sort of seized upon this quote with a ridiculous kind of “yes!” because I felt like it was describing in a wonderful prescient and powerful way the poetics of Ashbery.  In Ashbery’s poems, the page is a kind of experimental and experiential laboratory, in and through which new meanings, new metaphors, are attempted.  Through this process, the “meaning of the present” is amplified, and we are taken so far out of (and so near towards?) our customary thinking that we are then able to think more clearly about our present values, preoccupations, habits, beliefs, etc.  It is in this sense that we can think of Ashbery’s work as an exploration of what a moral imagination means, which is another of saying that Ashbery attempts to give us the most robust, diverse, and rich possible answer to this question.  His poetry is therefore an unprecedentedly moving and powerful example of the moral imagination at work, while at the same time it teaches us the importance and relevance of the imagination as the primary means by which we actually think and live.      



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