Will and Imagination

The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, William Blake

Reading Trotsky’s autobiography, one seems to read it in two lights, as if the recto page glowed a soft yellow, while the verso pulsed a steady blue, making the air around one all but suffused. These lights are the alchemical glow of the political and the poetic and it is the politico-poetic import of Trotsky’s life that becomes more and more unbelievable as one reads on. That is to say; it is as if he was being carried away on a dual wave of his own will and his own imagination onto the still-wet gesso of history. And these are the poetical-revolutionary forces: Will and Imagination. There is Trotsky, for example, and then there is William Blake. Much of Blake reads as anything but political, but a text like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell has a politics of its own, just under the surface, warping with the threat of the Leviathan’s breach.

I’m reading a section about the Bolshevik men attacking tanks with revolvers. There is something almost apolitical in this— or suprapolitical. This represents a real fight, full of something other than nationalistic hatreds. I think of Orwell in Catalonia— and as always in this connection, of Henry Miller who gave Orwell his corduroy jacket as a send-off on the latter’s way to shoot at Spanish fascists. I consider Miller and his ‘cowardice’ in the face of the war, and I feel great sympathy for him. All men who are not idiots should feel cowardice in the face of the frightening stupidity of war. Then one thinks again of Trotsky, who waged not war, but revolutionary war, and who thought he was doing so in a way fundamentally different from others before him. It could be said that there are finer distinctions, decisive for us, that the death machine of war will never register in its infinite march, revolutionary or not. This is one of the most important questions. It would not be too much to think of this problem once every day, while sitting over one’s second cup of coffee.

This much seems clear: wanting peace is not an answer, but neither is allowing war. Is this, then, the meaning of revolution? The denial of the death machine in both its incarnations as peace and as war, the false alternatives offered us only by killers? There is a right place for violence, but the imagination, not merely the will, is needed to find it.      

From Blake’s Jerusalem: “I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty of both body & mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination.”1

There is Blake’s hell and there is Rimbaud’s hell: not only his seasonal one, but his life described in his letters. The life of a poet: poetry harasses you when you are looking up the street, out of a window, into the backs of the heads of strangers… Rimbaud writes of the blood in the plants themselves: “I long for lost days: when the rosy blood / Of green trees, the water in rivers, / When the world’s sap flowed, / Pouring a universe into Pan’s veins.”2: Lost youth in the weary heart of his own Spring, an infinite drudgery of sunlight, which threatens but then falls away like an acidic rain. Somewhere a manifesto writer puts a gun in his mouth. One sits on the city train and feels it sucking backward— far away in the back of my head, near the base of my throat, goes a theme by Schoenberg, three keys walking a straight line through the fog. Refuge in memory and fantasy, like a drug moving through the perfection of medical glass via the medium of saline solution. One fantasizes about being drafted or transcripted into a possible war. I see myself drinking a ration of coffee from a metal cup in a tent, in a distant place, the stillness of conflict flooding the countryside. Then, a shell goes off near the treeline, the book I am reading (something by Thomas Mann, who wrote books made to be read while languishing at the edges of possible battlefields, in murderous conditions of boredom) must be laid aside. The other privates fall out of their cots, reach for untied bootlaces, take sidearms off bedside tables, sigh, close their eyes exasperatedly, and so on, until we are outside, in armored trucks, waiting for the moment, the point de capiton. The dream has reached terminal velocity. One’s body, the bodies of others, the landscape itself, dotted with the technology of death, falls into step with the dream, becomes a superstructure of dream— and not in the form-giving sense with which Nietzsche identified dreams.

This dream (under the sign of fantasy) is rather the bacchanalian fever-dream of the festering political infection that is war. Benjamin, at the very end of One-Way Street calls this mass-dream the night of annihilation which is both epileptic and ecstatic.3 But the epilepsy in war belongs wholly to the men fighting it, to the foreground, while the ecstasy always takes place, as a good censor or an intelligent story-teller might have it, off-screen.

Talk and the aura of war is relieving to a country presumably because it staves off the question, both theoretical and practical, of civil war, which much talk of revolution also happily eclipses. The will of the country is concentrated so stupidly on a distant point that its imagination (these words lose their capitalized terminological masks in this case) is spared the more immediately comprehensible horror of the possibility of killing one’s neighbor and of being killed by one’s neighbor in the spirit, not of innocent crime and passion, but of actual civil war.

There is, or has been, a country, a land, a city-state, and in all of these a time, a long summer perhaps, when the heat eventually ceased to exert a relaxing effect on the muscles and the heart of the people. The summer went on long, long beyond what anyone could have wanted or expected. The bodies began to wilt and beg for water in an imitation of exhausted plant-life. Drinking glasses of water became a passtime. A quiet fear of drought, in the towns or provinces and villages, snuck into people’s dreams and their conversation. But when things were really becoming interminable, there was a knock at the door: messengers bearing news of conscription. Everyone would have their turn and so a sigh of relief passed through the streets and the overheated rooms. The drought question itself evaporated, along with most other questions. The real front was exiled, outsourced, postponed. Relief. War is procrastination writ, not large, but far away and over and over again.

Blake calls out: Empire is no more! And now the lion and wolf shall cease.4 The injunctions of war and the snivelings of pacifism: I will repeat myself. These are the alternatives of the killers, of the lions and wolves in the treatment of multitudinous prey— not of men and women. Do not play the language game when its pieces have been cast by weapons-manufacturers. The actual alternative, which steps outside of this formal cul-de-sac, is not a “synthesis” between war and peace, nor their resolution through a forced stasis, which, even if it were possible, would be terrifying in either case, but an alliance between Will and Imagination in the spirit of revolt.

Every year in August, I pick up a certain book— or rather, in August, especially during a warm, rainy night, when the streetlight glow of the city is shattering into its nocturnal impressionism, this book tugs on me, like the weight of an anchor reminding a sleeping ship that it will not drift too far: Cendrars’ Moravagine. But it is in connection with two other figures, representatives of perfect admixtures of those two notions, Will and Imagination, that I now think of the book and of Cendrars. In Blake we have Imagination as the operative force of his work with Will as its superscript; and in Trotsky the converse, Imagination determining, exponentially so to speak, the force of his Will. The result of these expressions (which could be written for Blake and Trotsky respectively as IMAGINATIONWILL and as WILLIMAGINATION ), or their power, to continue the mathematical analogy, is poetry, the Word, in the case of Blake, and revolution, or Deed, in the case of Trotsky. I think of Moravagine as well as Cendrars in this context because the book as well as the man, which seem to have reciprocally created each other, represent these relations in the most striking way. Cendrars is both Trotsky and Blake without ever for a moment ceasing to be Blaise Cendrars the man. He holds will and imagination in his left hand (his right arm having been lost in war) without any difficulty of balance or proportion. Moravagine is a force of poetry and a goad to action for the one who reads it— how to act is not yet important, but that one must act, even if that act consists in the contemplation of a cell wall— incarcerative and biological senses of ‘cell wall’ both being appropriate here. The violence, revolution and warlikeness in Moravagine has an unconscious manifesto in the language of Blake while the book’s exilic tempo is that of Trotsky’s armored train, which carried on board all the elements needed to forge a new civilization.

The relation, then, between the above-enumerated name-representatives (Blake → Trotsky → Cendrars/Moravagine) is something like the relation between Nietzsche’s nexus of name-representatives, not only in The Birth of Tragedy, but over the development of his work: Apollo → Dionysus → Nietzsche/Dionysus (the Apollinian is later dissolved, transfiguring the concept of the Dionysian).5 Apollo and Blake are, if the above notation is to be trusted, torn apart in the primary Dionysian/Revolutionary explosion so that the third terms may be born out of their sacrifice. The third term in these cases represents the man (or group) who is no longer separable from his work – his bare fact of living from his form of life – except within himself, where separation from much of himself is still required in order that the work which he still has to do may externalize itself.

It is worth noting that when Cendrars writes himself into Moravagine as a character of almost no importance, he remains Blaise Cendrars. He is no character, nor is he the narrator— even when held down into the river of fiction, he comes up for air and brings something of the river with him, sprinkling it off of his skin, like an unwitting pollinator, on the plants of mere reality as he walks away. It becomes more and more difficult to identify someone like Cendrars in the light of our two notions here employed. He is still too much of a man, rather than a monument or force; Cendrars is similar to the Don Quixote described by Foucault in The Order of Things, even if in an inverted, altered sense: “[H]e is himself like a sign, a long, thin graphism, a letter that has just escaped from the open pages of a book.”6

When Imagination and Will disappear, it is into either a nothingness or spirit. Those of spirit who abide in the light of both Will and Imagination, and thereby make these one, like the voice of a God which is at once logos and deed, are of course not reducible to typologies such as “Apollinian” or “Dionysian,” nor to the soft dualism of Will and Imagination that we have been using. These words function as ways of distancing us, poetically or philosophically as we would have it, from the frightening nearness, at all times, of what could be called the pull of spirit which obliterates every bad infinity of this-and-the-other. But this distancing is not a retreat, nor a denial. It is rather like the holding-out of a page by a reader with strained eyes so that the text can once again sharpen and become effective in his field of vision; or, like a mirror being placed at a distance so that only a small field of reflection can be seen within it, which, because of its violent delimitation, acquires the novelty of a ready-made set forth by an invisible Surrealist insurgent.

I should say that in using the word “spirit” I do not mean the kernel-word of the spiritualistic yearning that Benjamin, in his “The Author as Producer,” identifies with fascism: “It is not spiritual renewal, as the fascists proclaim, that is desirable: technical innovations are suggested.”7 In this sense, when I invoke the specter of Surrealism, I am not talking about a “spiritual development,” but rather a technical innovation. Even if we talk about those “of spirit,” we never fall into the easy stupor of mere spiritualism. Indeed, there have been few movements as sober as Surrealism.

What is needed is something like an armored train, to recall Trotsky’s mentioned above, fitted with all of the tools of destruction (which above I consistently also refer to as the elements required for the building of a new civilization) commanded by such insurgents of a surrealism, traversing the world to kill— not people, but images and signs, the points of contact between the spider-web threads of the spectacle.8 This spectacle is, as Debord says, real.9 The operative prefix in “Surrealism” should be interpreted in this connection: a means of going over-and-above, of overcoming (Sur-) the current concrete10 realism of the spectacle. Will and Imagination have the same enemy.

This brings us again to the possibility of the politico-poetic, or the poetic-political. In the form of groups rather than people, doing away with both Blake and Trotsky as examples of admixtures of Will and Imagination under the aspect of spirit (and Cendrars as my example of the soft-dualism-destroyer), we have the Situationist International and Surrealism (the “official” Surrealism of manifestos and proclamations). But then, taking Cendrars’ place in the equation, we have the sober, evil Surrealism of the sewer, of the literal underground, described in Bolaño’s novella “A French Comedy of Horrors,” the Clandestine Surrealist Group, or CSG. The man on the phone from the CSG, who calls the narrator Diodorous in a strange moment of conscription which constitutes most of the novella, tells him: “‘The revolution is made without disguises. Revolutionaries hide to prepare for revolution. (…) And broadly speaking, that’s what the Clandestine Surrealist Group is.’” And further along: “‘Official surrealism, the usual worthy exceptions aside, is unaware of the existence of the CSG.’”11 The supreme political-poetic task is to first draw, then to open this surrealistic, clandestine door in reality.

The sharp end, so to speak, of the above essay, or to use the word literally, the above attempt, has nothing to do with an “ought” regarding either art or politics. The former cannot be happily reduced in the way that I have here been reducing— and for the latter I often couldn’t care less. The politico-poetic, as used above, is to be regarded as a laboratory monster of its own that, once disassembled into its constituent body parts (art-, politics-, poetry-as-such, etc.) only offers other potential combinations— for the organization and animation of other monsters. ∎

  1. Blake, William. “To the Christians, Plate 77” In The Complete Poems of William Blake, edited by Alicia Ostriker, 797. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979.
  2. Rimbaud, Arthur, Trans. Wyatt Alexander Mason. “Credo in Unam.” I Promise to Be Good: Rimbaud Complete, 9–10. New York: Random House, 2004.
  3. Benjamin, Walter. In Reflections Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, 94. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
  4. Blake, William. “A Song of Liberty, Plate 25.” In The Complete Poems of William Blake, edited by Alicia Ostriker, 195. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979.
  5. This brief flash of notional playfulness is structurally indebted to Alenka Zupančič’s The Shortest Shadow.
  6. Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 46. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
  7. Benjamin, Walter. In Reflections Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, 228. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
  8. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”
  9. Ibid. 3.
  10. Ibid. 2.
  11. Bolaño, Roberto, Natasha Wimmer, Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas, 94–95. Penguin Canada, 2022.