Image Work – Projection of an Image Ideal

8 Aug

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is one of the supreme lyric voices, masters of conceptual metaphor and of the English language. He is perhaps most intriguing and important to understanding our culture in his profound ambivalence about the value of imagination as a path to truth, to personal fulfillment and social melioration. Often referred to as skeptical idealism, his ambivalence about image work expressed itself in three shattering critiques early in his writing career (“Alastor” 1815), “Julian & Maddalo” (1818-19), a thinly disguised debate with Byron, and his last and perhaps unfinished work, “The Triumph of  Life” (1822) that searingly depicts imagination and its erotic essence as self-delusion and the path to alienation and slavery.

In “Alastor” he offers his first somber view of the morbid and delusive dynamic of projecting an image ideal and transferring energy and Eros into it, draining the self and leaving it exhausted in the Narcissus pattern. In his admonitory Preface, defining the quest of “the Poet” in the poem, he describes image work precisely:

“He images to himself the Being whom he loves… the vision in which he embodies his imaginations unties all of wonderful, wise or beautiful which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depict… The Poet is represented as uniting these [qualities] and attaching them to a single image.”

But the dream image of the exotic “veiled maid” (151091) whose “voice is like the voice of his own soul” absorbs his hopes and desire in an erotic dream that leaves him drained and alone (192-222 passim). In the Preface, Shelley comments on the danger of the image ideal and idealization generally:

“The Poet seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception,” that is, he seeks fruitlessly in the world for a woman beloved that matches his ideal soul sister and alter ego. “Blasted by disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.”

While the long final paragraph of the Preface asserts the nobility and social value of the Poet’s idealistic desire, contrasting it to the selfish ‘prudence’ of the older Wordsworth, Shelley has emphasized the morbidity and alienation of image work. This great poem, an epitome of Hellenic based Western poiesis precisely displays the pattern of idyll – apocalypse – elegy embedded in Western identity, psychology and institutions. It explains and demonstrates its fascination with an image ideal, the displacement of life by the ideal and the resulting death. Scarcely 23, and beginning a singularly prolific use of images to make myths of social renovation, Shelley saw and described the darkness, sorrow, loneliness and despair of the image project; that is, he understood and depicted the decline and collapse of the West.

The greatest and culturally definitive aesthetics of the West express this pattern. We will examine a variety of the at this site.


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