Poe’s “Chemistry of the Intellect”

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I’m a master’s student in the department of English at New York University, currently enrolled in a course called American Romance and Realism, in which we read fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A few weeks ago, we looked at the work of Edgar Allan Poe, plunging ourselves into his dark, sensuous, neurotic literary universe. But Poe was a critic and commentator as well as our country’s foremost documenter of psychic torment, and while doing my assigned reading for the week, I stumbled across a bit of his “Marginalia” that my Penguin anthology calls “On Imagination.” (It was originally published in the Southern Literary Messenger in May 1849.) What does Poe have to say about Lincoln Center Institute’s core concept?

Poe discusses imagination in the context of artworks, but it’s easy to apply his comments to other realms. He writes:

“The pure Imagination chooses…only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined…. [N]ot unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements results in a something that has nothing of the qualities of one of them, or even nothing of the qualities of either. . . Thus, the range of Imagination is unlimited.”

For Poe, imagination is about making surprising connections between things—ones that others haven’t been willing or able to make. Such a connection often results in an entirely new thing, and thus imagination has no bounds; it’s not limited by what exists in the world because it uses that stuff to produce what does not exist. Poe refers to the “chemical combination” of the imaginative product. His scientific analogy is apt. Confronted with brave new ideas or objects, we are prompted by how utterly inevitable they feel to ask “why it is that these combinations have never been imagined before.”

Oddly enough (or maybe not so oddly, given that I’m a film lover), Poe’s remarks bring to my mind the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning 1996 film, Fargo. Perhaps this is partly because of the grisly subject matter of both Poe’s fiction and the Coens’s movie. But to me, Fargo represents a truly successful combination of disparate elements and is an imaginative work of art. The picture’s bold project is to tell a violent and realistic crime story in a comically observational way, reminding us of how closely the brutal and the mundane coexist in our strange world. Eccentric as Fargo is, the ultimate effect of this synthesis is that the film is also quite moving. The scope of its tone and content pushes far beyond the confines of the traditional crime drama and gets at the contradictory nature of human life, which is at once awkward, funny, decent (like Frances McDormand’s stoic, pregnant police officer, Marge Gunderson), and terrible.

Before I finish, I want to make a giant segue and point out that Poe’s notion of imagination as “the facility of discovering combinable novelties worth combining” jibes with one aspect of Lincoln Center Institute’s thinking on the subject. In Imagination First, Scott Noppe-Brandon and Eric Liu describe imagination as “our wondrous capacity to take our perceptions of the world and convert them through analogy, induction, and recombination into something…not yet extant, counterfactual” (34). Scott and Eric are talking about more than just art, of course; they’re looking at education, business, science, government, community. But the principle’s the same.

Now that I think about it—in this post, I’ve connected Edgar Allan Poe, the Coen brothers, and Lincoln Center Institute. An act of imagination! Or else I’m just scatterbrained.

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  1. […] pictures of poe imaginationnow.wordpress.com […]

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