Ask a modern poet or painter what he or she thinks the imagination is, and you will hear words like “creativity,” “fantasy,” and “fiction.” Ask, however, an eighteenth-century poet or painter, and you would have heard terms like “memory,” “order,” and “nature.” This is because eighteenth-century artists thought of the imagination as a faculty very much like the collections which they kept — strange collections of old teeth, rare butterflies, and fabulous creatures, but also seemingly ordinary collections of botanical specimens, old and new coins, and stones. The imagination, that is, was that faculty which gathered, ordered, and rearranged specimens from the world all around us. Such an imagination may therefore best be read as an institution parallel to the historical development of the museum.
It will be the work of this course to examine ways in which the modern imagination retains elements of the eighteenth-century curatorial mode of thought. We will work to recover a sense of the minds of the men and women who collected, and in collecting, created rare and strange works of literary art. This class will therefore involve readings from such eighteenth-century writers as John Locke, Alexander Pope, and Laurence Sterne. Readings will also include 20th- and 21st-century writers and philosophers, including such work as that by novelists Kazuo Ishiguro and Edward Carey; for these recent writers seem to rediscover, and even offer a defense of, an eighteenth-century aesthetic. Our end goal will be to explore the ways in which the imagination has all along involved a curatorial component — which, as Samuel Johnson puts it, “collects, combines, amplifies, and animates.”
Students will select course requirements from a menu of options, which may include an exhibit review, an exam, a short essay, or an in-class presentation. This class will however be built around a virtual Imagination Museum, hosted by Virtual Gallerie. Students will twice be invited to select an object of their choice from the assigned readings, developing an extended caption for the virtual museum and an essay to appear in the exhibition catalogue.
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