Art, Poetry, the Imagination and the Future

Jan 27, 2014 | Random Convolutes

Is poetry a message in a bottle? A message from the future? Does it unearth the things we know, but cannot yet say?

“In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.’ What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns’, things we don't know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious. […] To unearth these ‘unknown knowns’ is the task of an intellectual.”

– Slavoj Žižek, “The Empty Wheelbarrow” in The Guardian, 19 Feb 2005


We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.”

– Percy Shelley “A Defense of Poetry


“The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception.”

– Samuel Coleridge, ch. 13 in Biographia Literaria (1817)


“The case of radical inventions [of semiotic codes] is rather different, in that the sender more or less bypasses the perceptual model, and delves directly into the as yet unshaped perceptual continuum, mapping his perception as he organizes it.

[…] Take the case of the Impressionists, whose addressees absolutely refused to 'recognize' the subjects represented, and said they 'did not understand', that the painting 'did not mean anything', that real life was not like that, etc. This refusal was due to the addressees' lack not only of a semantic model to which the mapped items might be referred, but also of a percept to guess at, since they had never perceived in this way.

In such cases what takes place is a radical code-making, a violent proposal of new conventions.”

– Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, p. 254.


"Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gaslamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows ?

– Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying


Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life

– Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying


code-making and invention are aesthetic activities."

– Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, p. 254.


“For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”

– Percy Shelley “A Defense of Poetry


“The great Thinker came, the original man, the Seer; whose shaped spoken Thought awakes the slumbering capability of all into Thought. It is ever the way with the Thinker, the spiritual Hero. What he says, all men were not far from saying, were longing to say.”

– Thomas Carlyle, “The Hero as Divinity” in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840)


"It is naive to think that writing is a simple two-stage process: first you decide what you want to say, then you say it. On the contrary, as all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say. Writing reveals to you what you wanted to say in the first place. In fact, it sometimes constructs what you want or wanted to say. What it reveals (or asserts) may be quite different from what you thought (or half-though) you wanted to say in the firs place. That is the sense in which one can say that writing writes us."

– J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point, 18


"But poetry, too, can be ahead. La poési, elle aussi, brûle nos étapes."

Paul Celan, "The Meridian" in Selected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, New York: Routledge, p. 45


I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of. 

– Umberto Eco, "The Art of Fiction: No. 197," in The Paris Review