What do we imagine we are talking about when we speak of the imagination? Or, to put it another way, can we imagine the imagination?
The question may sound a little like one of those enigmatic zen koans – think of a hand trying to grasp itself or a tongue trying to taste itself – but if we don’t approach the imagination through the imagination rather than just through the intellect, then something of its essential nature may get lost in the translation.
Thus there is a tendency, when we try to grasp the imagination simply by thinking about it, to reduce it to a description of its various functions. We might define it, for example, as the capacity to visualize things which are not actually present to our outward senses, so that I have only to write the word ‘elephant’ and suddenly a large animal is present to your inner eye which was not there a moment before. From that starting point we can consider the way the imagination is able to transfigure things into forms other than those by which they usually present themselves to the senses. Magritte’s painting of a pipe which insists that it is not a pipe makes us startlingly aware of this function. Or we might consider the metaphorical way in which the poetic imagination uses images drawn from one set of things to make statements about another, or to present them in an illuminating new perspective. Thus an ordinary pair of boots or a stick-back chair remain just that until Van Gogh comes along with his oil paints and imagination and transforms these everyday objects into something visionary.
We might go further than this by considering the relationship of imagination to time. Doesn’t imagination play such a large part in helping us to remember what has happened in the past, for example, that one might wonder whether memory itself is an act of imagination? Certainly it is through the imagination that we try to envisage what will happen in the future; and in that respect there are times when what Shakespeare called the tricks of ‘strong imagination’ seems to turn their power against us by conceiving of fearsome things which might conceivably happen but probably won’t, and of things which don’t exist at all. I’m thinking, for example of the monster lurking in the bedroom cupboard when we are children, and perhaps also, in later life, the existence of a highly organized network of international terrorists hell-bent on the destruction of civilized values? It was probably for this reason that another 17th Century writer, Francis Bacon, once suggested that the imagination should be tied down with weights not given wing.
Such a pragmatic view seems to prevail in the general assumptions of a system of education where the imagination is seen as a more or less useful adjunct to other more reliable and rationally accountable methods of intellectual procedure. In that context it tends to be seen as some kind of talent – or commodity even – of which a person can have too much or not enough. It may be that such a view of the imagination (as an unequally distributed and therefore potentially elitist talent) is what lies behind the dandified concept of the artist as a privileged creature on the one hand, and the suspicion with which the whole idea of the imagination is held by some radical theoreticians on the other. Yet it seems hard to quarrel with the general description of the imagination as described in the purely functional terms outlined above; but I’m still left wondering whether it’s the whole story.
Now, because I’m a novelist, the word ‘story’ carries a whole charge of meaning for me which is much stronger than the apparently casual way in which I have just used it. In fact, I assign a very high value to the role of story in human affairs and certainly share the conviction of the Apache Indian Benton Lewis who is recorded as saying, ‘Stories go through you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.‘ Those words make the hairs stand up at the back of my neck each time I encounter them because of the vivid way in which they place story-telling at the very centre of human experience as a force which can pierce the heart, has ethical consequences for the way we live, and can bring about a radical transformation in our sense of who we are.
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