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Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

More on the Balling Letter

This is a follow up on the train of thought I began two days ago on the subject of Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling where Spinoza brings up the curious notion of sharing in the essence of another person, and even the result that one could have phenomenological experiences of future events: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination. I wanted to really explore just how Spinoza is using or conceiving of the imagination as a wayward point between events of the body, and events of the mind, as it seems that this is most important to determining the value of Spinoza’s comments, in particular how they might reveal just how he conceived of the importance of the “imitation of the affects” and also our general capacity to know (and/or participate in) the essences of external things.

Spinoza displays some inconsistency in how he treats the imagination (and even the concept of order, discussed here: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order), throughout his work. And the problem of the standing of the “imagination” in 17th century thought is not something unique to Spinoza. By and large though I think we can assume that what Spinoza means by the imagination is what we commonly mean by phenomena, that is our experiences of things either being present to us, or our ability to conjure them up apart from their presence. Largely these are just what we would call our “experiences” in general. So when Spinoza and Peter Balling are talking about either a waking dream of a diseased slave or the sounds of an ailing child groan, these are hallucinatory effects which are not different in mechanism than the effects we experience when we perceive the world.

Spinoza early on takes these experiences of the imagination to be best seen as products of the body, and as sources of confusion. We do not understand their causes, and they kinda of erupt out of our ignorance, seemingly at random. They are the products of external bodies interacting with and stimulating our own body. Most importantly, it is this tendency towards randomness (in terms of their meaningfulness) that Spinoza is most concerned with, the way in which our phenomenal experiences occlude and confuse, something which Spinoza attributes to their bodily source. You can see this in his Emendation where he claims that the effects of the imagination are only caused by bodies, but it is interesting that when it comes down to it Spinoza himself seems a bit confused on how to classify them by their source in the body. Instead it is merely their tendency towards (apparent) randomness and also our passivity towards them and the world which distinguishes them from products of the Intellect. In this sense explanations of our experiences which turn to our body alone, due to our ignorance of causes, tend to create passive states to be contrasted with the workings of the Intellect which are activities of our being:

Thus we have distinguished between the true idea and other perceptions, and we have established that the fictitious, the false, and other ideas have their origin in the imagination, that is, in certain sensations that are (so to speak) fortuitous and unconnected, arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions. Or if you wish, you may here understand by imagination whatever you please, as long as it is something different from the intellect, and the soul has a passive relationship to it. It matters not how you understand it, now that we know that it is something random, and that the soul is passive to it, while we know how we may be delivered from it with the aid of the intellect [84].

Emendation of the Intellect

In this way our experiences are seen as simply the receiving of motions from external bodies, and our bodies become something of a “picture making machine” (citing the end of Willa Cather’s story “Paul’s Case“). But by the time of Spinoza’s writing of his letter to Balling in 1664, perhaps some six years after the Emendation (if we are to believe Mignini), Spinoza adopts a dual possible source for effects of the imagination and our experiences. They can come either from the states of our body, or from the Intellect. In fact, Spinoza regards a whole class of imaginary effects as near automatic traces of the ideas we form in the Intellect:

The effects of the imagination arise from the constitution either of body or of mind. To avoid all prolixity, for the present I shall prove this simply from what we experience. We find by experience that fevers and other corporeal changes are the cause of delirium, and that those whose blood is thick imagine nothing but quarrels, troubles, murders and things of that sort. We also see that the imagination can be determined simply by the constitution of the soul, since, as we find, it follows in the wake of the intellect in all things, linking together and interconnecting its images and words just as the intellect does its demonstrations, so that there is almost nothing we can understand without the imagination instantly forming an image.

Letter 17, To Peter Balling, July 20th 1664

Apart from the take in the Emendation, here the imagination actually “follows in the wake of the Intellect” and distinct from the opinion that it tends towards randomness in meaning, its images and words (!) are interconnected just as (one presumes, in a way similar to) the intellect’s linking of its proofs. It should be noted that Spinoza is reasoning from “experience” itself here, and not making a deductive determination, but it is clear that he has at the very least shifted his stance away from the significantly passive and randomesque sources of the imagination some years back. And even more evocative, the very concept of linked and interconnected images and words strongly calls to mind the linchpin proposition 13 of part II of the Ethics, wherein the order and connection of ideas and (extended) things is said to be the same. There is nearly a third “order and connection” going on here.

How Can The Imagination Have Two Sources?

This aspect of the letter actually has troubled me quite a bit. In fact any place Spinoza argued that there is either a bodily source or a mental source for an event I felt a deep objection arise in me that Spinoza’s parallel postulate strictly forbids any such ultimate distinction. As you can see from the diagram posted above, the order and connections of the bodily state expressions of an essence run necessarily parallel to their ideational expression; and Spinoza precludes the idea that one side of the parallel can have causal effect on the other. So any bodily state, when taken as the causal source of an event, must also have its parallel ideational state which additionally the causal source of the same event (read as an ideational expression). What determines whether one uses the bodily state as the causal source or not is whether the event is read as either a physical expression, or as an ideational one. But all events are necessarily both. So when Spinoza says in the Emendation that the imagination (those events) are bodily in nature, this can only mean that he is already speaking of them as physical (putting some strain on the future of the parallel postulate). By the time of writing of letter 17, the effects of the Imagination are dichotomized, but at first blush this is not at the level of description. Instead it seems rather for Spinoza there are kinds or classes of effects of the Imagination. Delirums and dispositional judgments spring from bodily constitutions, and in this case, prophetic imaginary experiences which spring from the mind or the constitution of the soul.

What are we to make of this supposedly confusion of the parallel postulate wherein some experiential events are predisposed to be explained through a physical causal chain, and others through an ideational one? And what are we to make of the causal difficulties involved in the notion of the imagination “following in the wake” of the Intellect, or even that such wake-following possesses its own order of expression? I think the answer lies within the kinds of relevant causes that get swept up in either chain of explanatory force. That is to say, while we may presume that the parallel postulate holds and that there is a causal chain of each kind flowing backwards for any one event, which chain we chose depends on both our access to information about that chain, but also what each explanation would reveal. And in the case of our experiences of our interactions with things external to us, indeed each chain gives us a different method of self-analysis and world orientation which is in some sense linked to the ontological lean each event has towards the world itself. Spinoza wants to say something of the effect, there could be two seemingly similar imaginative effects, waking dreams, but understanding one might tell us more about ourselves (if we take it to be the product of the physical states of our body), and the other might tell us something more about the world, something external to us, (if we take it to be the product of our ideational state and our relational juxtaposition to other things in the world). You can see this in the way that Spinoza justifies that Peter Balling’s hallucination would indeed be prophetic, born out of the love and literal union of the father to the son:

[continuing from the passage just cited] This being so, I say that none of the effects of the imagination which are due to corporeal causes can ever be omens of things to come, because their causes do not involve future things. But the effects of the imagination, or images, which have their origin in the constitution of the mind can be omens of some future event because the mind can have confused awareness beforehand of something that is to come. So it can imagine it has firmly and vividly as if such a thing were present to it…

The Logic of the Future

What I propose is that the dichotomy Spinoza uses is one quite natural to us. In lieu of the medical common place at the time, thickness of blood, we moderns need only replace “low dopamine levels” or “damage to the cerebral cortex” to see that physical causal explanations of our experiences and judgments gain their traction from the way in which those experiences fail to shed light upon the world. The meaningfulness of those mental events, in that they fail to reveal the world (for others or ourselves), drains away, and is recouped through a physical explanation. In Spinoza’s letter, a fever explains a hallucination when the vision does not seem to derive from events in the world. Physical dispositions explain those that are too morbidly or aggressively predisposed, when those mental events seem out of joint with what is going on. To take another example, “its the drink speaking” is a regular dismissal of the “truths” spoken by a drunk person. The recapture of explanatory force at the level of the physical is accomplished by understanding better the way in which physical causes are operating. One might cure a fever to ride oneself of delirium, or abstain from alcohol to avoid overly emotional outbursts (or take lithium to avoid depressions). Key though to Spinoza’s dual cause interpretation is that given that mental events lack traction in the real world (seemingly), such imaginary effects will simply seem to the person experiencing them to verge towards “random”. A cloak of ignorance covers much of the causal chain, leading to confusions.

There is another path to explanation, the path to order and sense-making, and it is to this that Spinoza sets up his alternate explanation of a waking dream. Imaginary effects, in that they follow in the wake of the Intellect actually can reveal the world itself – and in this case even indicate something of its future. Spinoza predicates this upon what he calls “participating” in the essence of another person (or perhaps more correctly, in the affections and ideas of another person), something he calls a union and a becoming as if one and the same, via love. For clarity sake I diagram out the two causal explanations of waking dreams below:

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I think that there is more than our ability to interpret waking dreams at stake in these descriptions. In fact I think we have clue to the very picture of the world Spinoza holds as it underwrites all of his epistemic arguments for how we do and do not know things in the world. But first I would like take up the very notion that we might have premonitory imaginary experiences. This is something that strikes us as sheer superstition, and it is hard for us to accept that the quite sober Spinoza would indulge in such a fancy. But I think I can appeal to some very real, in fact everyday experiences which may clear up just what future-vision may be for Spinoza, or perhaps why he holds the claim that he does: that things of the Intellect involve things of the future. The first of these is obvious, the sciences indeed are, based on acts of intellection, quite predictive. But it is more than this, for Spinoza is talking about an outright hallucination of a future event, so much so it is as if the event is happening right in front of you. Do we have any instances of this sort we can draw on? The most instructive one I believe is the example shared by Spinoza and Wittgenstein, discussed here: Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique. This is when a mathematical series is being expressed and that there is a rule that is being followed in the succession of numbers. It don’t think it is too much of a stretch to refer to what Wittgenstein called “characteristic accompaniments” as effects of the imagination which are not understanding itself, but rather seem to come in the wake of understanding. If I say aloud “2, 4, 6, 8…” it is not out of the question that you might have an auditory hallucination of the sound “1o” in anticipation of the next number. This in fact would be an albeit confused but still imaginary premonition of a future event, even if I happen to stop at the number 8. In fact we get a glimpse at what Spinoza means by the “wake of the Intellect”. In some sense this power of anticipation through imaginary phenomena expresses our grasp of a situation is what Spinoza is appealing to when trying to explain how Balling’s vision differs from his own. And most importantly, the foundation of this difference is the participatory relationship the father has with his son’s essence, the literal union of the two.

How Adequate Are Our Ideas of External Things?

Much has been debated about the way Spinoza conceives the adequacy of our ideas of external things, and in this questions about just how adequate the ideas of Science are. Spinoza is restrictive to the value of abstractions (of which much of Sciences seems to be composed), and mathematics (which he calls both a product of, and an aid to, the imagination in letter 12). Spinoza’s theory of Common Notions introduced in the Ethics simply is too bare to do the weight of carrying  the whole load of how we gain knowledge about states of the world. Indeed I side with others such as Michael Della Rocca and Eric Schliesser who, for different reasons, renounce that completely adequate ideas could be held about things external to us, insofar as they are taken as separate things. And I think core to the issue of adequate knowledges is Spinoza’s Letter 17 notion of participating in the essence of another person to strong ideational effect. There seems to be an undercurrent of participation in essences between Spinoza’s intuitions about how we hold ideas of other things i the first place.

Most readings that seek to resolve the difficulties of how adequate our knowledge of external thing is turn to either our necessarily adequate knowledge of “common notions” (supposedly ideas that are common to both ourselves and external things) or to the infinite modes like “motion and rest”, which in turn are taken to be common to all things. And Spinoza towards the end of his unfinished treatise on the Emendation gives us a good hint at how we should think about these very “real” things, things we must train our Intellect to:

As to the ordering of all our perceptions and their proper arrangement and unification, it is required that, as soon as possible and reason demands, we should ask whether there is a being – and also what kind of being – which is the cause of all things so that its essence objectified is the cause of all our ideas [ut  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”ut “>eius essentia obiectiva sit etiam causa omnium nostrarum idearum]. Then our mind, as we have said, will reproduce [referet] Nature as closely as possible, for it will possess the in the form of thought the essence, order and unity of Nature. Hence we can see that it is above all necessary for us always to deduce our ideas from physical things, i.e., from real beings, advancing, as far as we can, in accordance with the chain of causes from one real being to another real being, neither inferring something real from them nor inferring them from something real. For in either case the true progress of the intellect is interrupted.

But it should be noted that by the series of causes and real beings I do not here mean the series of mutable particular things, but only the series of fixed and eternal things. It would be impossible for human limitation to grasp the series of mutable particular things, not only because they are innumerable but also because of the infinite number of factors affecting one and the same thing, each of which can be the cause of the existence or nonexistence of the thing. For the existence of mutable particular things has no connection with their essence; that is (as we have said), their existence is not an eternal truth.

But neither is there any need for us to understand their series. For the essences of particular mutable things are not to be elicited from their series or order of existing, which would furnish us with nothing but their extrinsic characteristics, their relations, or, at most, their circumstances. All these are far from the inmost essence of things. This essence is to be sought only from the fixed eternal things, and at the same time from the laws in these things as well as in their true codes [veris codicibus] so inscribed, which govern the coming into existence and the ordering of all particular things [99-101]

The Emendation of the Intellect

In such a passage our modern scientific gaze turns to these “true codes” and “laws” which govern particular things, and we ask ourselves just how Spinoza conceives that we can know these laws within his framework of knowledges. And how are we to conceive of the passing from one real thing to another, without falling into abstraction? What does it mean for us to identify what kind of being is the cause of all our ideas so that we hold the essence of something in our mind, as the source of our own ideas of a particular thing? What I suggest is that Spinoza’s letter 17 notion of “participation” in an essence is precisely the relation that Spinoza is thinking of here. There is for Spinoza a genuine transformation of the self, through the power of its ideas, when it comes to perceive and think about particular things external to it. And I would suggest that this transformation involves the literal becoming other than itself, or rather, forming a mutuality with the object known such that the inter-relationship expresses a new essence: 


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In letter 17 the father is said to necessarily have an idea of the affections of the body of his son due to the degree of their union so as to have become one and the same. They have achieved a kind of identity which at the ideational level anchors the adequacy (or at least the greatly increased adequacy) of his idea of his son’s affections, so much so that the future of the son’s illness leaves a trace in the imagination of the present. That indeed a new essence is achieved through the father’s love could be argued in two ways, following two of the definitions of what makes any composition of physical parts an “individual”. The first is that any fixed ratio of a communication of parts achieves individuality, and there is no reason at all why one would not admit any cognitive inter-relationship between a knower and a known as just such a communication of parts (however mediated). The second is that Spinoza defines as an individual anything combination of causes which produces a singular effect. In the case of the father’s premonition, at least as Spinoza qualifies it, it is the union of the two, closely related to the level of essences, that produces this imaginary event, establishing this union itself as an individual. But I suggest further, participation in the essences of other things external to us is the FUNDAMENTAL mode of our knowing anything about anything in the world, and this is due to the fact that any particular modal expression shares its status as an expression of Substance with any other modal expression. If there are laws (and codes) which govern the expression of any two modal forms, these two modes are necessarily participating in the essences of each, at the very least through their sharing of the governance which brings them into being and order.

The Participatory Ontology of Knowing

But something more is meant by “participation” by Spinoza in this letter, in particular how it is due to the deep love of the father for his son. In the Ethics “love” is relegated to the order of the passions, a complimentary psychological part to hate, each echoing back into the other. Here in the letter to Balling instead love is seen as the source of a deep ideational union between two persons, and a kind of prophetic power of epistemological imagination: a father that can foreseen his son’s death, however confusedly. In the Ethics Love is defined as the increase of perfection accompanied by the idea of an external cause, and in this sense the father loves his son because he regards the son as the source and cause of his own increases in perfection and joy. I have always taken this phrase “accompanied by the idea of an external cause” to be a reprovement for the human tendency to select out only ONE cause for the complexity of relations which compose our mental and physical events. Indeed the beloved is “a” cause of our increase in joy and active perfection, but what makes this a passive relation is the exclusion of all other causes, the entire matrix of intimate connections which for Spinoza go all the way up to God-Substance, and all the way into our own individual states, which have brought about this change. What distinguishes Spinoza’s participatory love from just this sort of passion, at least so far as how he exemplifies it (and notice he speaks of an ideal relation, and not necessarily the Balling experience), is that it creates a participation in essence which connects one’s own ideas with the affections of the other person. And implicitly, I would propose, such a love-paricipation must involve all the common notions, the mutuality of human nature and the infinite modes as determining and shared expressions. One has, at least potentially, ideas of all these mediating things in just the same way that one has ideas of the affections of the son.

If this line of thinking is to be embraced as underwriting knowledge for Spinoza, that is, degrees of participation qualified by the degree of adequacy of one’s ideas, the degree of one’s being, and even the strength of intellectual love, then Spinoza’s principle of the “imitation of the affects” has to be reconsidered or at least put into juxtaposition with the participation in essences, due to love:

 E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect…

Such a proposition puts the imagination front and center in the processes which allow us to achieve social bonds, not only with other humans but with almost all things in the world; (I argue this at some length here: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV) The question always is, How can mere processes of projective imagination gain any ground on which such imagining and experiencing the world through others actually proves efficacious and informative. When Spinoza says “If we imagine a thing like us” is there a concrete, or real “like us” which makes this process gain traction and ultimately real? If we take up Spinoza’s Letter 17 musings on the prophetic, and if we grant that essence participation is fundamental to the access of at least some of our intellectual activity and awarenesses, it would seem that the imitation of the affects is an imaginary expression “in the wake of” real intellectual, ideational unions, unions which vary by degrees of adequacy and being. The question is not whether we can have adequate ideas of external, particular things, but rather how adequate ideas express themselves in varying degrees of our occasions of cybernetic union with things in the world. It is for this that Spinoza wants us to concentrate on “real beings” which constitute our very combinative participation with those things we know, use and ultimately love.

Revelation in the Wake of Intellect

Lastly, this would suggest, that if our world being – quite in contrast with Heidegger is not a “thrown-into-ness” of alienation – is one of a necessarily participation and overlapping, boundary-defying mutuality of expression, in which our knowing of things is to some degree our being them (Campanella), then our imaginations may very well be capable of producing phenomenal presentations of our futures, however confusedly, in much the same fashion that Peter Balling foresaw his son via participation. Additionally, it is my suspicion that Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian slave was no mere random eruption of the physical states of his body, as he would have it, but likely an expression, however mitigated, of the actual relations of Spinoza to the Jewish community back in Amsterdam, and the slave trade discussed some here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question.


Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination

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The above is the scheme of Spinoza’s implicit theory of a prophetic imagination, come from his letter to Peter Balling (17), where a father writes about his premonition of his son’s death. The pertinent description from which this is drawn I quote:

To take an example like yours, a father loves his son that he and his beloved are as though one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the affections of the son’s essence, and what follows; and the father, through the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, because necessarily the father’s soul from the son’s ideal essence, and with the affections of the same, through this, to what follows he must participate (as I have demonstrated elsewhere at greater length). Next, since the father’s soul participates ideally in this – in the things which follow from the son’s essence – he (as I have said) can sometimes imagine something of what follows from his [the son’s, implied] essence as vividly as if he had it before his eyes…

nempe, pater (ut tui simile adducam exemplum) adeo filium suum amat, ut is et delictus filius quasi unus idemque sint. Et quoniam (juxta id, quod alia occasione demonstravi) filii essentae affectionum, et quae inde sequuntur, necessario in Cogitatione dari debet idea, et pater, ob unionem, quam cum filio suo habet, pars memorati filii est, etiam necessario patris anima de essentia ideali essentiam filii, et ejusdem affectionibus, et iis, quae inde sequuntur, participare debet, ut alibi prolixius demonstravi. Porro, quoniam patris anima idealiter de iis, quae essentiam filii consequuntur, participat, ille (ut dixi) potest interdum aliquid ex iis, quae ejus essentiam consequuntur, tam vivide imaginari, ac si id coram se haberet…
I’ve discussed this letter before [How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead? and Spinoza and the Caliban Question to name two posts], quite frankly, if fascinates me, and it seems its ideas are often neglected in serious discussion of questions of the role of the imagination and the knowledge of the essences of external things. I was listening to Daniel Selcer’s “Singular Things and Spanish Poets: Spinoza on Corporeal Individuation” today, which I recommend for anyone interested in a slightly Deleuzian and highly literary appreciation of Spinoza’s notion of what constitutes an individual. Selcer’s treatment of “individual” as anything produced as a singular effect by a multitude (something to be appreciated by ne0-objectologists), set off another foray into the ideas of this curious letter, which I read in support of some of his thinking. (The lecture, as well as many other wonderful Spinoza papers just given on Spinoza and bodies, is found here). 
I thought it best to scheme it out, if only for later reference – and perhaps in posting it others will find it interesting, or may even be able to correct it with a better understanding. Sometimes I have a weakness for diagrams and schemes, as they anchor points in the mind so that it can do related, more inventive work along the way. Hopefully some will enjoy the map.
What is most troubling or difficult about the prophetic imagination is that it is far from clear just how to read the becoming “one and the same” of the father and the son (quasi). In many respects this simply falls into the imitation of the affects which foregrounds socialization itself, as found in the Ethics [treated quite thoroughly by Balibar, Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion]. It is a purely imaginary projection, the seed of conflict and excessive binding, needing to be leavened by power of rational unity. To be sure, Spinoza is covering something of the same grounds here (the beloved to the Father seems a passionate connection).  But this is no mere fantasy, but rather the real (though imaginary) prophetic experience of a future affective state. (It should be noted that Peter Balling externalized the affections of his son, heard his son’s future groans and did not feel pains or difficulty of breathing himself.) This imaginary relationship has epistemic traction. Spinoza is at pains to propose a dichotomy in which the ideational source of this imaginary event provides a real knowledge (if confused) of the future. Thus, just what the traction is it seems, must be found with the real participation of the father in the essence of the son, an implied merging of the two, or at least assemblage or mutuality (something I am tempted to read as cybernetic).
Under the question of the knowledge of other essences (or their affections that follow) it is significant that this portend comes from the ideational side of one’s own expression. That is, it does not come from the affections of one’s own body (which Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian is supposed to represent). It comes instead from the idea of the affections of another person’s body, casting into doubt just where one’s own “body” ends, and other’s begins. To a point of near contradiction, some idea follows from one’s own essence which, due to love and union, necessarily is of the affections that follow from another’s essence. This is something which one would presume could only occur if the two of you formed a single essence in some shape or form. Perhaps there is another answer to this, but this is all that I can see.
Another note worth talking about in brief is that I have been under the running theory that Spinoza contracted his tuberculosis from his own father (or step-mother), both of whom I hypothesize died from the disease [discussed recently here: Was Tuberculosis the Condition of Spinoza’s Emendation of the Intellect? and originally here: Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion]. If this is the case then the image of the “union” of the father and the son, and the idea that there are affections that might follow from the each of them certainly would grow more vivid. Indeed, Spinoza may have felt his very love for his father wove itself into the mutuality of their shared physical fates (as I most tentatively argued, Spinoza seemed to abstract into idea his own symptomatic, affection pathways in the first paragraphs of the Emendation).
The question is, does this letter (and my possible schematization of it) represent a confusion of Spinoza’s theories of body, idea and imagination, or does it possibly shed greater light on some of the more difficult passages in his thinking. I suspect the latter, especially in the sense that I have long held that Spinoza’s view is cybernetic, one in which knowing things intimately breaks down the boundaries between self, world and others, all the while retaining causal distinctions as concrete and distinct. In the letter to Balling Spinoza seems to, closer than at any other time, touch on the very mechanism of mutuality and its real, physical and mental effects. And that he does so in the context of arguing a prophetic imagination, this makes it all the more curious, and possibly engaging.