“imaginary” as a noun

I recently listened to a lecture series from The Great Courses entitled Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature. It’s good stuff, and the range of heroes the lecturer, Thomas A. Shippey, covers is impressive. He includes Cressida of Troilus and Cressida at one end of the timeline and Harry Potter at the other. I recently wrote about the series.

In the lecture on frontier heroes, in which Shippey discusses James Fenimore Cooper’s Nathaniel Bumppo and Larry McMurtry’s Woodrow Call and Gus MacRae, he uses the word “imaginary” as a noun. The course guidebook says:

quoteIn literary criticism, the word “imaginary” is used as a noun to mean a collective picture of an era derived from books, films, television, and so on. The most powerful imaginary of our time is the Wild West, encompassing gunslingers, wagon trains, rustlers, and, above all, cowboys and Indians.

In the actual recorded lecture I believe Shippey suggests something to the effect that this is almost the only useful term created by literary criticism.

None of the three online dictionaries that I use (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Oxford) offer a definition for “imaginary” as a noun, and I am generally not in favor of making adjectives into nouns, but I rather like this one.

I am tempted to talk about the imaginary of King Arthur and Camelot, or of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest, or Harry Potter and Hogwarts, but that would be a misuse of the term. According to Wikipedia, an imaginary “is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society through which people imagine their social whole.” The article quotes John Thompson, who says the imaginary is “the creative and symbolic dimension of the social world, the dimension through which human beings create their ways of living together and their ways of representing their collective life.”

So it has to be the real world.

Still, it can be a useful concept, I think. As one who is very fond of the 1970s, I would easily buy into an imaginary of the 1970s United States, even though that would probably reflect more of what I want to remember than what actually happened.

But then our collective imaginary of the Wild West certainly reflects fiction much more than reality.

So it goes.


2 Comments on ““imaginary” as a noun”

  1. […] blog entry that comes up with some regularity is my discussion of “imaginary” as a noun. This relates to a Great Courses series I listened to on Heroes and Legends. As the lecturer […]

  2. Hi Mike,
    In Portuguese the word “imaginário” (imaginary) is used as a noun for that exact meaning.


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