Technology, Imagination, and the Gothic Cathedral

May 12, 2009

One of the more interesting consequences of our current way of life, with all its demographic segmentation, extreme specialization, and multi-faceted culture, is the curious role imagination plays in our daily lives.  For some, imagination has become a daily undertaking, required by a job or needed for recreation, while for others, it remains at the borders of experience, understood vaguely and utilized only implicitly. However, despite the many different uses to which it is put, the function of imagination is now universally explicated as creative work, as being always an act of creation, related to things created and sometimes consumed, of something whose output is always put away or brought to oneself.  Our imagination has become technological in the Heideggerian sense: we conceive of our imagining as a dispensing of forces in concrete directions, to be picked up or not picked up or not elsewhere in the system. And following Heidegger’s thinking, if human imagination is part of the standing reserve, then it falls under the control of modern reason, which as we all know leads to problems.

Of course, there are alternatives to this way of thinking and understanding, a fact which underpinned much of Heidegger’s later work and that becomes only more pertinent the longer the machine age persists. The operative question is where and how thinking can be without being technological. One option involves a reclamation of Greek thought and a renewed appreciation for the role of the poetic in bringing us closer to truth. This was Heidegger’s preferred route. Another option, explored by many going back at least to John Ruskin and extending all the way up to the liturgical movement, was a reclamation of the middle ages as an escape from technological enframing; in Gothic architecture and medieval economics they found an alternative to the atomization of life and culture inaugurated by industrialization. One could find oneself, wholly in a Cathedral, or in the labor of the medieval peasant, not as number but as a person.

And just as with thinking, so with imagination. At least, this was what I found myself thinking after looking through Brother  Lawrence Lew’s piece on Gothic architecture. Though the classic in this case remains Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, Lew’s essay is a good further take on it with an eye to how Thomism underpins the Gothic era’s aesthetic sensibilities:

This is to say that the symbol – and in this case we mean the Gothic cathedral – is not just an earthly reminder or signpost of heavenly realities, but rather it is the ‘en-fleshing’ in worldly matter of heavenly realities. As in the Incarnation the eternal Word communicated with humankind in the flesh, so God continues to communicate his truth to us through material signs and visible means. For, Von Simson argues, the medievals understood that “the physical world as we understand it has no reality except as a symbol… symbol is the only objectively valid definition of reality”. This metaphysical sensitivity characterizes the medieval artistic vision, so that the Gothic cathedral is not to be primarily understood in functional or socio-economic or aesthetic terms, but in metaphysical and theological terms, and one has to ask what truth the cathedral symbolizes; how does God communicate with us in its beauty and form? Hence, Von Simson says, “the medieval artist was committed to a truth that transcended human existence. Those who looked at his work judged it as an image of that truth”.

This is definitely true. Architecture can be instruction, and it can symbolize the relationships that structure the cosmos, and it can stand halfway between heaven and earth, a literal embodiment of the world it belongs to. But it strikes me that the key point is that each of these functions is possible only if imagination is not merely productive of things but constitutive of a world. Encountered at the base material level, the Cathedral is nothing but glass, wood, and stone. Even with some education, we may see it as a collection of stories and pictures, but in order to truly understand it, to be in it, we must invoke imagination; we must reach beyond the parts and encounter the thing in the fullness of its background, where the unseen is wedded to the seen. This interweaving requires a way of thinking and being which is expressly not technological; we find the thing (the cathedral) in the place that it finds itself, and to understand it is not to understand its use, but to imagine (and thus find) the world it expresses.

One of the few  truly great church services I have ever attended was at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a huge building that overlooks the valley where downtown is nestled.  It was a hot afternoon in late August, and I wandered in on it purely by chance. The Cathedral was all but empty except for a few people scattered here and there and the voice of the priest speaking out into the echoing silence overhead. The sense of something greater was absolutely overwhelming; I remember wondering how much more powerful the place must have been a century ago, when the city hadn’t yet covered the horizon and the languages were still foreign. It was still pretty powerful as it stands, and the sense of humility and awe it imposed on me was remarkable. But most of all, it seized the imagination, and forced me to awareness that I was surrounded by a web of meaning that led beyond myself, up into the darkened corners of the building, out to the edges of belief and the known.  Of course, what I’m calling imagination here might also be called faith, in a broad sense. But faith, like doubt, has objects: non-technological imagination has no particular object. It predates the object and shapes its appearance when it arises. And its something we would do well to reclaim, regardess of our attitude towards faith.

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