Reading Montaigne’s essay ‘On the power of the imagination’ I am struck by how differently the imagination was viewed in the early modern period. Indeed, understanding of the term is confined to its more negative associative powers. ‘I am one of those who are very much influenced by the imagination’, writes Montaigne, ‘[And] my art is to escape it, not to resist it . . . I do not find it strange that imagination brings fevers and death to those who give it a free hand and encourage it.’
It is only in the Romantic period, when the imagination is associated by Wordsworth and Coleridge with creative power or the poetic principle – the link between the visible and invisible worlds – that the word accrues the significance we attach to it today.
But for Montaigne, imagination is nothing but trouble. Impotence, every manner of psychosomatic disorder, even the tendency to fart, all are blamed on the dreaded imagination. ‘The organs that serve to discharge the bowels have their own dilations and contractions outside of the control of the wishes and contrary to them . . . Indeed I knew one [such organ] that is so turbulent and so intractable that for the last forty years it has compelled its master to break wind with every breath. So unremittingly constant is it in its tyranny that it is even now bringing him to his death.’ The implication is that the imagination works on the individual who wields it– or rather is wielded by it – in the same tyrannical fashion as the bizarre ‘organ’ located in the bottom acts upon its owner.
What is strange in this essay is the to-ing and fro-ing between the pre-modern associations Montaigne makes with acts of witchcraft and other psychic and psychosomatic disturbances for which the imagination is blamed, and the task he sets himself as a writer. In a particularly lucid moment towards the end of the essay, we begin to hear the more familiar voice of the essayist at his best, extolling the virtues of brevity:
‘Some people urge me to write a chronicle of my own times. They consider that I view things with eyes less disturbed by passion than other men, and at closer range, because fortune has given me access to the heads of various factions. But they do not realise that I would not undertake the task for all the fame of Sallust; that I am a sworn foe to constraint, assiduity and perseverance; and that nothing is so foreign to me as an extended narrative.’