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Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“These emotions … appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea.”

Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on the Imagination and Its Seductive Power in Human Relationships

“Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue,” philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) wrote in her 1792 proto-feminist masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.” Independence became the animating force of Wollstonecraft’s life, and there was no form of it she valued more highly than the independence of the imagination — something her second daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, would come to inherit.

Wollstonecraft saw the imagination as the gateway to liberation, the most vitalizing nectar for the mind, and the most seductive aphrodisiac; she saw love as the domain in which “the imagination mingles its bewitching colouring” — for better or for worse, to enchant into rapture as well as to delude into despair. (A quarter millennium later, philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to write brilliantly about the imperfect union of the two.)

Wollstonecraft found herself afflicted with “the reveries of a disordered imagination,” which frequently caused her embarrassment and dejection — nowhere more so than in the passions of the heart, which coexisted with equal vigor alongside her formidable intellect.

“The pictures that the imagination draws are so very delightful that we willing[ly] let it predominate over reason till experience forces us to see the truth,” she wrote to her sister in a letter found in The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library). But a pure love, she believed, was a region “where sincerity and truth will flourish — and the imagination will not dwell on pleasing illusions.”

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Keenan, 1787

In December of 1792, shortly after the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and a month before the execution of Louis XVI furnished a cornerstone of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft left London for Paris. There, she met and became besotted with the American diplomat, businessman, and adventurer Gilbert Imlay. Although in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she had renounced sexual passion as complicit in women’s oppression, Imlay awakened in her a magnitude of desire both dissonant with her political views and personally disorienting in far exceeding what she had previously thought herself capable of experiencing.

Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant and gave birth to her first daughter in the spring of 1794, just as Britain was preparing to declare war on France. Imlay had made clear his disinterest in marriage and domesticity but, alarmed by the political turmoil and the danger in which it placed British subjects in Paris, he registered Wollstonecraft as his wife in order to protect her and the baby, even though no legal marriage took place. It was an act more necessary than noble — many of Wollstonecraft’s compatriots in Paris had no such protection and were either arrested or guillotined — but it was also the beginning of the end of their romance. A slow-seething commitment panic began bedeviling Imlay, who eventually left Wollstonecraft heartbroken and alone with an infant amid a raging revolution.

But even in their parting letters, as it becomes clear to Wollstonecraft that her lover wouldn’t return, her beseeching despair is laced with a lucid sense of her unassailable independence. Radiating from them is an awareness of how she had grown infatuated with the fantasy of a man whose reality of character was wholly unworthy of her love. Where her imagination had been the aphrodisiac responsible for her passionate infatuation — a state Julian Fellowes has called “a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers” — Imlay’s lack of imagination became the agent of disillusionment.

Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle , a wordless exploration of human relationships
Art from In Pieces by Marion Fayolle, a wordless exploration of human relationships

In a letter to Imlay from September of 1794, she makes no apologies about calling out his fatal flaw:

Believe me, sage sir, you have not sufficient respect for the imagination — I could prove to you in a trice that it is the mother of sentiment, the great distinction of our nature, the only purifier of the passions — animals have a portion of reason, and equal, if not more exquisite, senses; but no trace of imagination, or her offspring taste, appears in any of their actions. The impulse of the senses, passions, if you will, and the conclusions of reason, draw men together; but the imagination is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.

In a letter to Imlay from the following June, as his protracted abandonment drags on, she returns to the subject of the imagination and its role in human relationships. With an eye to the perennial question of telling love from lust — a question to which young E.B. White and James Thurber would provide a most delightful answer a century and a half later — and to the role the imagination plays in it, Wollstonecraft writes:

The common run of men, I know, with strong health and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason. — Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions, over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant; but they do not exist without self-denial.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, 1797

And yet for all the personal pain that her intense imagination caused her, it was also the wellspring of her creative and intellectual genius — the very thing that rendered her one of the most influential minds of her era. In a sentiment that echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Wollstonecraft adds:

These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and child-begeters, certainly have no idea… I consider those minds as the most strong and original, whose imagination acts as the stimulus to their senses.

The English political philosopher William Godwin, whom Wollstonecraft married after recovering from the heartbreak with Imlay and who fathered Mary Shelley, would later edit her posthumous works and laud these very letters as having “superiority over the fiction of Goethe” and being “the offspring of a glowing imagination, and a heart penetrated with the passion it essays to describe” — perhaps supreme proof the kind of sincere love Wollstonecraft imagined possible, for Godwin transcended the jealous ego’s knowledge that these letters were written to a former lover and instead celebrated Wollstonecraft for the faculty she valued above all else: her imagination.

Complement this particular portion of The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft (public library) with Wollstonecraft’s contemporary William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace, whose own ascent as a woman of intellectual accomplishment was shaped by Wollstonecraft’s legacy, on the imagination’s three core faculties.


Encke’s Comet, Celestial Poetics, and the Dawn of Popular Astronomy: How Emma Converse Became the Carl Sagan of the 19th Century

“The moment so long looked for may be nearer than we think, when, with a powerful grasp, like that of Newton, some watcher of the stars shall seize the secret of cometic history.”

“A comet,” wrote Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, “[is] a great clock, ticking out decades or geological ages once each perihelion passage, reminding us of the beauty and harmony of the Newtonian universe, and of the daunting insignificance of our place in space and time.” But a century before Sagan, another writer became the poet laureate of popular astronomy and distilled the science of space in luminous prose — Emma Converse (1820–1893), who pioneered the art of astropoetics in the 19th century. Her columns, syndicated widely in newspapers across the country, were among the first popular articles on astronomy to appear in any daily paper. Well before the first class of women astronomers graduated from Vassar and began revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, Converse was singlehandedly enchanting the common reader with the uncommon magic of the cosmos.

Emma M. Converse
Emma M. Converse

In an especially poetic piece published in Appleton’s Journal on January 6, 1872, Converse took up the subject of comets — in particular, Encke’s Comet, discovered nearly a century earlier, on January 17 of 1786.

Encke’s Comet is unusual for a number of reasons — not only does it pass closer to the sun than Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System, once per its strikingly short 3.3-year orbit, but it also seems to defy Newton by deviating from the motion pattern predicted by his law of gravity and instead arriving at that point closest to the sun a couple of hours early each orbit. The anomaly puzzled generations of astronomers, but its study, alongside the broader study of its kin, has helped illuminate the mysteries of the universe and even the probable origin of life on Earth.

Drawing of a comet, similar in appearance to Encke’s Comet, from The Comet Book, 1578

Converse paints the backdrop of the comet’s significance:

Sir William Thompson [Lord Kelvin], the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in his recent inaugural address startled his audience by the suggestive assertion that life on the earth may have had its origin from seeds borne to our earth by meteors, the remnants of former worlds. He united this theory with the partially-established one that comets and comets’ tails consist of meteoric rocks, becoming luminous by concussion, and a change of position in regard to our planet, thus divesting comets of the ancient superstition which made them the harbingers of war, pestilence, and famine, and transforming them into the beneficent creators who brought vegetation and life to the chaotic surface of the globe.

The great comet of 1881, observed on June 26, 1:30 A.M.
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century astronomical drawings

She returns to the particular subject of her article:

Encke’s comet is principally interesting for the reason that it performs its entire revolution within the boundaries of the solar system; that its period is the shortest of any comet whose revolution has been calculated; and that its twenty recorded returns give us a feeling of relationship which does not belong to any other individual of the cometic brotherhood. We hope that its present return to our neighborhood will give more light on the composition of the strange class to which it belongs.

It may seem that this comet is of little importance in the boundless world of space. But its short revolution of twelve hundred days illustrates the great laws which sway the material universe as fully as the vast sweep described by more distinguished members of the family, like the comet of 1680, whose perihelion was so near the sun that the heat on its surface was 25,600 times fiercer than that of an equatorial sunshine at noonday, and whose aphelion is so distant that it will not be reached for nearly 5,000 years… Its minute tail is fashioned by the same laws as that of the comet of 1744, whose six tails spread over the heavens like an immense fan; or like that of 1843, which stretched half-way across the sky at sunset; or the well-remembered one of 1858, called Donati’s comet, whose tail, with its superb cigarettelike form, says the late Sir John Herschel, “looked like a tall plume, wafted by the breeze!”

Art from The Comet Book, 1578

With her characteristic penchant for poetics, Converse turns from space to the Earth, bridging the magic of cosmic awe with the rigorous inquiries of science:

All over the scientific world, this little nebulous patch of light is being scrutinized by earnest gazers through the silent hours of starlit nights. The most powerful telescopes thus far have discovered no trace of a nucleus, and no shadow of a tail under its present condition of development; there is nothing to be seen but a fleecy cloudlet. That modern magician, the spectroscope, has also been faithfully applied to test the constitution of the celestial visitor.

Noting that such spectrographic analyses of the comet were being done at Washington’s Naval Observatory and the Harvard Observatory — which would soon become home to a brilliant team of unsung women astronomers — Converse turns a lyrical eye at once to the past and to the future of our celestial exploits:

The moment so long looked for may be nearer than we think, when, with a powerful grasp, like that of Newton, some watcher of the stars shall seize the secret of cometic history. Then will they still pursue their erratic course about the solar system, regulated by laws as easy of comprehension as those which sway the planets; then, also, will their fiery constituents be as fully determined as the grosser materials that make up the globe; and then will their use in the celestial economy be as plainly understood as the action of the sun on the planets that revolve around him! Fortunate is the observer who discovers the key to this celestial secret!

Complement with Converse’s scientific serenade to the evening sky and Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century astronomical drawings, then leap forward with modern-day astropoetics maestro Alan Lightman on dark energy, the multiverse, and why we exist.


How Do You Know That You Love Somebody? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Incompleteness Theorem of the Heart’s Truth, from Plato to Proust

“The alterations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart.”

How Do You Know That You Love Somebody? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Incompleteness Theorem of the Heart’s Truth, from Plato to Proust

“The state of enchantment is one of certainty,” W.H. Auden wrote in his commonplace book. “When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.” Nowhere is our capacity for enchantment, nor our capacity for self-deception, greater than in love — the region of human experience where the path to truth is most obstructed by the bramble of rationalization and where we are most likely to be kidnapped by our own delicious delusions. There, it is perennially difficult to know what we really want; difficult to distinguish between love and lust; difficult not to succumb to our perilous tendency to idealize; difficult to reconcile the closeness needed for intimacy with the psychological distance needed for desire.

How, then, do we really know that we love another person?

That’s what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling philosopher of our time, examines in her 1990 book Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (public library) — the sandbox in which Nussbaum worked out the ideas that would become, a decade later, her incisive treatise on the intelligence of emotions.

Martha Nussbaum

Devising a sort of incompleteness theorem of the heart’s truth, Nussbaum writes:

We deceive ourselves about love — about who; and how; and when; and whether. We also discover and correct our self-deceptions. The forces making for both deception and unmasking here are various and powerful: the unsurpassed danger, the urgent need for protection and self-sufficiency, the opposite and equal need for joy and communication and connection. Any of these can serve either truth or falsity, as the occasion demands. The difficulty then becomes: how in the midst of this confusion (and delight and pain) do we know what view of ourselves, what parts of ourselves, to trust? Which stories about the condition of the heart are the reliable ones and which the self-deceiving fictions? We find ourselves asking where, in this plurality of discordant voices with which we address ourselves on this topic of perennial self-interest, is the criterion of truth? (And what does it mean to look for a criterion here? Could that demand itself be a tool of self-deception?)

With an eye to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and its central theme of how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, Nussbaum contemplates the nature of those experiences “in which the self-protective tissue of rationalization is in a moment cut through, as if by a surgeon’s knife”: Proust’s protagonist, Marcel, has rationally convinced himself that he no longer loves his beloved, Albertine, but is jolted into confronting the falsity of that rationalization upon receiving news of her death; in the shock of his intense sorrow, he instantly gains the knowledge, far deeper and more sinewy than the intellect’s, that he did, in fact, love Albertine.

In a testament to Proust’s assertion that “the end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Nussbaum writes:

Proust tells us that the sort of knowledge of the heart we need in this case cannot be given us by the sciences of psychology, or, indeed, by any sort of scientific use of intellect. Knowledge of the heart must come from the heart — from and in its pains and longings, its emotional responses.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

Such a conception of love’s knowledge, to be sure, stands radically against the long intellectual tradition of rationalism stretching from Plato to Locke like an enormous string of reason that plays only one note, deaf to the symphonic complexity of the emotional universe. The Proustian view calls for a restoration of lost nuance. Pointing to “the pseudotruths of the intellect,” Nussbaum revisits Marcel’s predicament, wherein the intellect has imposed an illusory sense of order and structure upon the entropy of the emotions:

The shock of loss and the attendant welling up of pain show him that his theories were forms of self-deceptive rationalization — not only false about his condition but also manifestations and accomplices of a reflex to deny and close off one’s vulnerabilities that Proust finds to be very deep in all of human life. The primary and most ubiquitous form of this reflex is seen in the operations of habit, which makes the pain of our vulnerability tolerable to us by concealing need, concealing particularity (hence vulnerability to loss), concealing all the pain-inflicting features of the world — simply making us used to them, dead to their assaults. When we are used to them we do not feel them or long for them in the same way; we are no longer so painfully afflicted by our failure to control and possess them. Marcel has been able to conclude that he is not in love with Albertine, in part because he is used to her. His calm, methodical intellectual scrutiny is powerless to dislodge this “dream deity, so riveted to one’s being, its insignificant face so incrusted in one’s heart.” Indeed, it fails altogether to discern the all-important distinction between the face of habit and the true face of the heart.

Nussbaum considers how our over-reliance on the intellect for clarity about love produces instead a kind of myopia:

Intellect’s account of psychology lacks all sense of proportion and depth and importance… [Such a] cost-benefit analysis of the heart — the only comparative assessment of which intellect, by itself, is capable — is bound, Proust suggests, to miss differences of depth. Not only to miss them, but to impede their recognition. Cost-benefit analysis is a way of comforting oneself, of putting oneself in control by pretending that all losses can be made up by sufficient quantities of something else. This stratagem opposes the recognition of love — and, indeed, love itself.


To remove such powerful obstacles to truth, we require the instrument that is “the subtlest, most powerful, most appropriate for grasping the truth.” This instrument is given to us in suffering.

Half a century after Simone Weil made her compelling case for why suffering is a greater clarifying force than intellectual discipline, Nussbaum examines this antidote to the intellect’s self-delusion by quoting directly from Proust:

Our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.

Central to this method of truth-seeking is what Nussbaum calls catalepsis — “a condition of certainty and confidence form which nothing can dislodge us.” To be cataleptic — from the Greek katalēptikē, derived from the verb katalambanein, meaning “to apprehend,” “to firmly grasp” — is to have a firm grasp of reality. But, of course, the implied antinomy is that because reality is inherently slippery, either the firmness of such catalepsis or its conception of reality is false.

Noting the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Zeno’s view that we gain knowledge of the heart’s truth through powerful impressions that come directly from reality, Nussbaum returns to Proust’s Marcel:

The impression [that he loves Albertine] comes upon Marcel unbidden, unannounced, uncontrolled… Surprise, vivid particularity, and extreme qualitative intensity are all characteristics that are systematically concealed by the workings of habit, the primary form of self-deception and self-concealment. What has these features must have escaped the workings of self-deception, must have come from reality itself.

We notice, finally, that the very painfulness of these impressions is essential to their cataleptic character. Our primary aim is to comfort ourselves, to assuage pain, to cover our wounds. Then what has the character of pain must have escaped these mechanisms of comfort and concealment; must, then, have come from the true unconcealed nature of our condition.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

And yet there exists another, more dimensional possibility. Nussbaum writes:

For the Stoic the cataleptic impression is not simply a route to knowing; it is knowing. It doesn’t point beyond itself to knowledge; it goes to constitute knowledge. (Science is a system made up of katalēpseis.) If we follow the analogy strictly, then, we find that knowledge of our love is not the fruit of the impression of suffering, a fruit that might in principle have been had apart form the suffering. The suffering itself is a piece of self-knowing. In responding to a loss with anguish, we are grasping our love. The love is not some separate fact about us that is signaled by the impression; the impression reveals the love by constituting it. Love is not a structure in the heart waiting to be discovered; it is embodied in, made up out of, experiences of suffering.


Marcel is brought, then, by and in the cataleptic impression, to an acknowledgment of his love. There are elements of both discovery and creation here, at both the particular and general levels. Love of Albertine is both discovered and created. It is discovered, in that habit and intellect were masking from Marcel a psychological condition that was ready for suffering, and that … needed only to be affected slightly by the catalyst in order to turn itself into love. It is created, because love denied and successfully repressed is not exactly love. While he was busily denying that he loved her, he simply was not loving her. At the general level, again, Marcel both discovers and enacts a permanent underlying feature of his condition, namely, his neediness, his hunger for possession and completeness. That too was there in a sense before the loss, because that’s what human life is made of. But in denying and repressing it, Marcel became temporarily self-sufficient, closed, and estranged from his humanity. The pain he feels for Albertine gives him access to his permanent underlying condition by being a case of that condition, and no such case was present a moment before. Before the suffering he was indeed self-deceived — both because he was denying a general structural feature of his humanity and because he was denying the particular readiness of his soul to feel hopeless love for Albertine. He was on a verge of a precipice and thought he was safely immured in his own rationality. But his case shows us as well how the successful denial of love is the (temporary) extinction and death of love, how self-deception can aim at and nearly achieve self-change.

We now see exactly how and why Marcel’s account of self-knowledge is no simple rival to the intellectual account. It tells us that the intellectual account was wrong: wrong about the content of the truth about Marcel, wrong about the methods appropriate for gaining this knowledge, wrong as well about what sort of experience in and of the person knowing is. And it tells us that to try to grasp love intellectually is a way of not suffering, not loving — a practical rival, a stratagem of flight.

Art by Salvador Dalí for a rare edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

And yet this notion of measuring love by degree of suffering seems to be a particular pathology of the human heart — could, Nussbaum asks, Marcel’s sorrow at the loss of Albertine be evidence not of love, or at least not only of love, but of grief or fear or some other constellation of contexts? She writes:

Marcel’s relation to the science of self-knowledge now begins to look more complex than we had suspected. We said that the attempt to grasp love intellectually was a way of avoiding loving. We said that in the cataleptic impression there is acknowledgement of one’s own vulnerability and incompleteness, an end to our flight from ourselves. But isn’t the whole idea of basing love and its knowledge on cataleptic impressions itself a form of flight — from openness to the other, from all those things in love for which there is in fact no certain criterion? Isn’t his whole enterprise just a new and more subtle expression of the rage for control, and need for possession and certainty, the denial of incompleteness and neediness that characterized the intellectual project? Isn’t he still hungry for a science of life?

Noting the contrast between the mutuality of love and the asymmetry of infatuation — after all, Marcel’s confrontation of his feelings for Albertine doesn’t require her participation at all and can be conducted as a wholly solitary activity — Nussbaum adds:

What Marcel feels is a gap or lack in himself, an open wound, a blow to the heart, a hell inside himself. Is all of this really love of Albertine?


The heart and mind of another are unknowable, even unapproachable, expect in fantasies and projections that are really elements of the knower’s own life, not the other’s.

Proust’s protagonist arrives at this conclusion himself:

I understood that my love was less a love for her than a love in me… It is the misfortune of beings to be for us nothing else but useful showcases for the contents of our own minds.

And yet this conclusion, Nussbaum argues, is but a form of self-protection — in denying one’s porousness to the other and instead painting love as a curious relationship with oneself, it bolsters the illusion of self-sufficiency as a hedge against the suffering which love entails. Such a conception is ultimately a form of self-delusion masking the true nature of love and what Nussbaum calls its “dangerous openness.” Reflecting on Proust’s ultimate revelation, she writes:

Love … is a permanent structural feature of our soul.


The alterations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart. In suffering we know only suffering. We call our rationalizations false and delusive, and we do not see to what extent they express a mechanism that is regular and deep in our lives. But this means that in love itself we do not yet have full knowledge of love — for we do not grasp its limits and boundaries. Sea creatures cannot be said to know the sea in the way that a creature does who can survey and dwell in both sea and land, noticing how they bound and limit one another.

Love’s Knowledge is a revelatory read in its totality. Complement it with Adam Phillips on the interplay between frustration and satisfaction in love, Erich Fromm on mastering the art of loving, Alain de Botton on why our partners drive us mad, and Esther Perel on the central paradox of love, then revisit Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness, agency and victimhood, the intelligence of the emotions, and how to live with our human fragility.


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