The common opposition between the imaginary and the real prevents us from genuinely understanding either one. Indeed, the imaginary embodies a certain intuitive presence of the thing and not an empty signitive intention. Moreover it is able to compete with perception and even to offer an increased presence, a sur-real display, of the things, as shown by Merleau-Ponty’s analyses of art in Eye and Mind. As a result, we have to overcome the conception according to which the imaginary field is a mere figment of my imagination, a mental entity that I could still possess in the very absence of its object. On the other hand, the presence of reality is never complete or solid: “The transcendence of the far-off encroaches upon my present and brings a hint of unreality even into the experiences with which I believe myself to coincide.” Therefore, first, the imaginary (initially regarded as a peculiar field constituted by specific phenomena such as artworks, fantasies, pictures, dreams, and so forth) has to be redefined as a special hovering modality of the presence of the beings themselves. Second and furthermore: is not the imaginary always intertwined with perception? Merleau-Ponty advocates the puzzling thesis that there is an “imaginary texture of the real.” What is the meaning of this assertion? To what extent will it be able to blur the classical categories without arousing confusion? Can we avoid reducing reality to illusion? Lastly, consistently followed, this reflection leads as far as to discover, in the imaginary mode of being, an ontological model (the ontological model?), the canon enabling Merleau-Ponty to think Being, an “Oneiric Being.” Thus we will venture the apparently paradoxical contention that the imaginary is the fundamental dimension of the real. The notion of “fundament” becomes indeed problematic and receives an ironical connotation, however this is precisely what is at stake in a non-positivist ontology. Existence “lies” in a ghost-like, sketchy and unsubstantial (absence of) ground, in a restlessly creative being that is open to creative interpretations. And there it finds the principle of the ever-recurring crisis that both tears it apart and makes it rich in future promise.
M. Merleau-PontyL’Œil et l’esprit (Paris: Gallimard1961) 23; translated by Carleton Dallery as “Eye and Mind” in The Primacy of Perception (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1964); translation of “Eye and Mind” revised by Michael Smith in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader ed. Galen A. Johnson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press 1993) 126; hereafter citations will give first the French then the 1993 English edition page numbers.
See also Merleau-Ponty L’institution. La passivité. Notes de cours au Collège de France (1954–1955) (Paris: Belin2003) 178: Merleau-Ponty claims to found an ontology of the perceived world. He actually focuses on the fact that this perceived world is “the presence of an absence” and calls for a definition of a Being that will explain “the lacunas ellipses and allusions” and the part of “myth” that are inherent in this world. Thus Merleau-Ponty’s ontological research in this work starts with a reflection devoted successively to sleep and dream and to the link between perception imagination symbolism delirium and memory.
See for instance Merleau-Ponty“l’institution d’un sentiment” in L’institution. La passivité. I have developed an analysis of this aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in “Institution et imaginaire: la réflexion merleau-pontyenne sur les illusions amoureuses” Chiasmi International 6 (2005): 303–43.