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Imagination Project

The Institute is currently pursuing a study of literary imagination. The purpose of the project is to attempt the first systematic interdisciplinary investigation of creative imagination and its role in the cultural process.

The project has three major themes, pursued simultaneously by the principal investigator and two research associates and building on previous studies of modern culture and society (Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity ; The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth, Harvard University Press, 1992 and 2001, respectively). The focus the creative literary imagination, examined is (a) as the – unconscious – instrument in the construction of the modern consciousness; (b) as a method – intentional and conscious – for the understanding and interpretation of the social world; and (c) in comparison with other forms of creative imagination – operative in visual art, music, and science.

a) The first line of study in the project consists of an analysis of Shakespeare’s opus in comparison with other masters of the late Elizabethan literary scene and with a view to establishing to which extent the emerging modes of human association and experience provoked and were reflected in his imagination, and to which extent his creative voicing and interpretation gave definite form to, and thereby constructed, the new social reality. This detailed examination of Elizabethan literature will be supplemented by an equally detailed study of Cervantes and contemporary Iberian authors (the so called “Siglo de Oro”) to provide a comparison of England with an environment much less affected by the processes of early modernity. The task is to understand how linguistic imagination works, or how language changes and develops new modes of experience and discourse: whether the momentum in the process is primarily linguistic or, rather, belongs within the broader cultural/social environment.

b) The second specifically literary component of the project connects imaginative literature to its social and historical context in an innovative way. In distinction to the conventional sociology of literature (whose scope proved to be both of limited significance to the humanities and of limited interest to social scientists, very few of whom still engage in it), the project employs creative literature as a methodology for the understanding of the social reality/culture around it. To test this novel understanding, it turns its lens onto literature itself, thus also suggesting new ways (to be hoped of lasting value) for the interpretation of literature, and art in general, and for the understanding of its history, specifically stylistic change and development. The study, aided by the insights of the seminal literary scholars of the Russian Formalist school, builds mainly upon reflections of creative writers themselves, from occasional remarks by way of diaries, letters, and recorded conversations of (to mention but a few) Dickens in England, Balzac and Flaubert in France, Thomas Mann in Germany, to Edith Wharton’s uniquely comprehensive analysis of the nature of creative writing, The Writing of Fiction.

c) The third part of the study is devoted to the exploration of literary imagination in comparison with the ways imagination works in visual art, music, and science. It will be based, in the first place, on the analysis of correspondence, diaries, notebooks, and biographies of great artists and scientists of the past — several universally recognized creative individuals whose mental processes have been reasonably well documented (both by themselves and by others) and therefore made accessible to study. The literature side of the comparison will include ten arguably greatest modern writers of fiction, two from each of the major national traditions: the English — Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; the French – Balzac and Flaubert; the German – Goethe and Thomas Mann; the Russian – Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; and the American — Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis; while other forms of creative imagination will be represented by Einstein, Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, and Leonardo da Vinci on the account of the unusual wealth of self-reflective records and/or information focusing on their creative processes, left by and about them. Conclusions reached on the basis of this comparison will be tested against in-depth personal interviews with eminent living practitioners of arts and sciences, on the one hand, and biographers, historians, and musicologists, on the other, in the Boston area.

Two courses, related to this project, were offered in Boston University’s Writing Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, by Mr. Eric Malczewski:

  1. “Time Recreated; Time Regained” How does an author draw a reader into a world of his own creation or recreate his own life on the printed page? We undertake to answer this question in this course by exploring human imagination and experience as expressed in words, examining Proust’s claim that life can be realized within the confines of a book. Through close readings of great texts that take the subjectivity of life-and the concomitant passage of time-as their theme, we will understand how words are given the power to stop time and make the past present. Among the texts that we will read are Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way.
  2. “Analysis of Time”
    This course concerns the problem of time and its treatment in social theory, philosophy and history of culture. In this course, we will examine the
    relationship between time and human society using the classics of social theory as our guide. Among the texts that we will read are Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, Emile Durkheim’s Rules of the Sociological Method, Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism, Karl Marx’s “The German Ideology,” Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.