The imagination seeks not things but merely a setting of choice nature: water-carved stone, muted clay, scented woods, verdure, words. And let us speak of friends who bring stories like song to hang in the air like provisional ornaments.
Last night, one such story related how my friend, who I think looks like a tall mermaid, was standing at the bus stop at around 7:00 p.m., and was joined by an elderly man in a worn but clean shearling coat and boiled wool hat, who muttered just loud enough to be heard "and in such fine vocabulary," how tall women are manly, gain weight as they age; "But you," he said to my friend, "defy my prior observations." The bus arrived, she entered via the back door, he the middle. She watched as he sat first next to one person, quietly, and how the person slipped him some change, then next to another, to the same effect.
When he finally approached my friend, she had already taken ten dollars from her wallet, which she placed in his hands. His eyes opened wide and he said to her, "You are a dame of generosity and grace."
As I write that, I think of the word χάρις which can mean "grace or favour felt, whether on the part of the doer or the receiver." My friend's observation was that despite the fact that circumstance had pushed this man, who might have been about eighty, to the edge of existence, he had not lost his dignity. Nor had he lost his feeling for the good word.
When my friend tells me stories like this, I wonder at all kinds of things. But I have decided that she is a magnet to circumstance that can act as seeds of transformation.
I've been thinking about Samuel Johnson because of the recent BBC radio series based on Boswell's Life, and wonder about that dry bone he picked with Plutarch - that old bone that has to do, too, with the general 18th century move away from imitation conceived as the representation of exemplary subjects of both the sacred and profane. Subjects were no longer to be presented in an ideal light, but "as they were." Interestingly, this coincided with a linguistic shift wherein rhetoric was divorced from poetry, which became more impulsive and subsumed to the cult of genius as opposed to universals.
Who is this "as we are"? Isn't that the photo of self from that not so great period that people hide at the back of albums or discard altogether? Is that picture of verity not also in defiance of the strength of transformation and the elusive aspect of self which always seems to escape being held between lines?
In contrast is the biography based on Sir Arthur Help's phrase: to "employ our imagination in the service of charity." And in the mean time, the image of the old man: dignity throughout, remembering the power of the good word, living by Prov 18:21 Mors et vita in manibus linguae: life and death are in the hands of the tongue.
We might think of entire nations depressed if lazily into lack of zeal to comb their own outskirts and record the tales from their perspective, or biographers who have changed the contours of people's lives in the name of truth but to their own liking. One of the best posts on the task of the historian in this respect I found here, which in part awakens Gadamer's concern from Truth and Method about how there ought to be the attempt to seek the truth of what we read. It is also seeking this truth that might often lead one to cross-disciplinary conclusions.
Perhaps one could think of Rev. Henry Carey's sentiment (in Riley) Multae terricolis linguae, caelestibus una, meaning the inhabitants of earth have many tongues, those of heaven have but one. We know that this latter statement resonates with the original concept of mimesis. It was written by a man who worked for many years as the assistant librarian at the British Museum, whose translation of Dante's Divine Comedy won the privileged stature of a standard work (you may recognise it). The very idea of a standard work of translation supports this idea this idea of tongues and the approximation towards originals.
It is all very fine to attempt to take the objective stance towards the subjective man and the works of his ψυχή, but on the other hand, it is easy for the small-minded to have a field day, as per Juvenal's Lingua mali pars pessima servi; "If a servant is unprincipled, the opportunities which he has for slander render his power for evil ten-fold greater" (Riley). The good word and good principle: the ideal light for the subject of yesteryear and possibly for the truth-seeker in that examples reach above the detail of circumstance to celestial abstraction depicted in 天 where the great man reaches the sky: it is the hands of the great man that imitate the sky, in a word.