John McGahern, “The Image”, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (July 1991)

Bibl. note: John McGahern, ‘The Image’, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (July 1991), p.12; previously published as “The Image: Prologue to a Reading at the Rockerfeller University”, in Honest Ulsterman, 8 (1968), p.10.
  Note: an earlier version appeared as a preface to the revised edition of The Pornographer, while the present version is introduced by a note saying that McGahern revised it for inclusion here [i.e., in CJIS].

When I reflect on the image two things from which it cannot be separated come: the rhythm and the vision. The vision, that still and private world which each of us possesses and which others cannot see, is brought to life in rhythm - rhythm being little more than the instinctive movements of the vision as it comes to life and begins its search for the image in a kind of grave, grave of the images of dead passions and their days.

Art is an attempt to create a world in which we can live: if not for long or forever, still a world of the imagination over which we can reign, and by reign I mean to reflect purely on our situation through this created world of ours, this Medusa’s mirror, allowing us to see and to celebrate even the totally intolerable.

We cannot live, we can only reign, and we have no reason or right to reign, nothing more than our instinctive need; so we reign in the illusory permanence of false gods; and it may be this need of the illusion of permanence that creates in its turn the need for shape or form. As we reign on our cuckoo thrones the subjects we summon up are images.

Image after image flows involuntarily now, yet we are not at peace - rejecting, altering, shaping, straining towards the one image that will never come, the image on which our whole life took its most complete expression once, that would completely express it again in this bewilderment between our beginning and our end; and then the whole mortal game of King would be over, and all games.

It is here, in this search for the one image, that the long and complicated journey of art betrays the simple religious nature of its activity: and here, as well, it most sharply separates itself from formal religion.

Religion, in return for the imitation of its formal pattern, promises us the Eternal Kingdom. The Muse, under whose whim we reign in return for a lifetime of availability, may grant us the absurd crown of Style, the revelation in language of the unique world we possess as we struggle for what may be no more than a yard of lead piping we saw in terror or in laughter once.

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