To the child, from the beginning, life is the unfolding of one vast mystery; to him our stalest commonplaces are great news, our dullest facts prismatic wonders. To the baby who has never seen a red ball, a red ball is a marvel, new and magnificent as ever the golden apples were to Hercules.
You show the child many things, all strange, all entrancing; it sees, it hears, it touches; it learns to co-ordinate sight and touch and hearing. You tell it tales of the things it cannot see and hear and touch, of men “that it may never meet, of lands that it shall never see”; strange black and brown and yellow people whose dress is not the dress of mother or nurse—strange glowing yellow lands where the sun burns like fire, and flowers grow that are not like the flowers in the fields at home. You tell it that the stars, which look like pin-holes in the floor of heaven, are really great lonely worlds, millions of miles away; that the earth, which the child can see for itself to be flat, is really round; that nuts fall from the trees because of the force of gravitation, and not, as reason would suggest, merely because there is nothing to hold them up. And the child believes; it believes all the seeming miracles.
Then you tell it of other things no more miraculous and no less; of fairies, and dragons, and enchantments, of spells and magic, of flying carpets and invisible swords. The child believes in these wonders likewise. Why not? If very big men live in Patagonia, why should not very little men live in flower-bells? If electricity can move unseen through the air, why not carpets? The child’s memory becomes a store-house of beautiful and wonderful things which are or have been in the visible universe, or in that greater universe, the mind of man. Life will teach the child, soon enough, to distinguish between the two.
But there are those who are not as you and I. These say that all the enchanting fairy romances are lies, that nothing is real that cannot be measured or weighed, seen or heard or handled. Such make their idols of stocks and stones, and are blind and deaf to the things of the spirit. These hard-fingered materialists crush the beautiful butterfly wings of imagination, insisting that pork and pews and public-houses are more real than poetry; that a looking-glass is more real than love, a viper than valour. These Gradgrinds give to the children the stones which they call facts, and deny to the little ones the daily bread of dreams.
Of the immeasurable value of imagination as a means to the development of the loveliest virtues, to the uprooting of the ugliest and meanest sins, there is here no space to speak. But the gain in sheer happiness is more quickly set forth. Imagination, duly fostered and trained, is to the world of visible wonder and beauty what the inner light is to the Japanese lantern. It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.
But Mr. Gradgrind prefers the lantern unlighted. Material facts are good enough for him. Until it comes to religion. And then, suddenly, the child who has been forbidden to believe in Jack the Giant Killer must believe in Goliath and David. There are no fairies, but you must believe that there are angels. The magic sword and the magic buckler are nonsense, but the child must not have any doubts about the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the Spirit. What spiritual reaction do you expect when, after denying all the symbolic stories and legends, you suddenly confront your poor little Materialist with the Most Wonderful Story in the world?
Sir Thomas Browne was an exalted mystic [whose mysticism] owed much to his literary style. Style, in his sense, did not merely mean sound, but an attempt to give some twist of wit or symbolism to every clause or parenthesis; when he went over his work again, he did not merely polish brass, he fitted in gold. This habit of working with a magnifying glass, this turning and twisting of minor words, is the true parent of mysticism; for the mystic is not a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.
-G.K. Chesterton, The Little Things, from The Speaker, December 15th, 1900. Read it online HERE.
Let me put it this way—imagination to me is not the capacity to invent what is not there but the capacity to see and develop what is there.
To hell with the things you can think up. The world is oversupplied with people who can think up things. But looking at yourself, looking at people, getting a viewpoint on them that clarifies them, gives them meaning, and expressing that viewpoint in a form—that is the highest of arts.
-Samson Raphaelson, The Human Nature of Playwriting, Kindle loc. 318, 1473
I read an article on Vox the other day that highly recommended this book. It said that the book has been out of print for quite a while but has recently been released for Kindle. Raphaelson was a famous play-write and screenplay writer, maybe most famous for writing The Jazz Singer. He taught a workshop at a University years ago; the contents of this book are the transcripts from that workshop. It sounded too good to pass up. It’s been quite interesting.
In the above quotes, Raphaelson makes the point that imagination is not the ability to make things up. Rather, imagination is the ability to see what is already present, but to see in with a perception, a depth of insight, that others may lack.
If you buy this, then the key to developing your imagination is living with your eyes open; it’s not simply being able to visualize or invent. Look at the world, yourself, and your experiences, and turn them over and over in your mind. See what’s there. Don’t be content to make up new worlds; look at the old worlds and find what’s there. Hopefully I’ll post some examples of how this works, from the book, in the coming days.
The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made…
-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.65
This is pretty much in line with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that the imagination is the ‘organ of meaning.’ The imagination seeks to grasp for, and embody, truth through metaphors and story. The good stories still deal with the age-old issues relating to the truth of reality. This is a good quote to keep right next to Lewis.’
Are you cultivating an imagination bent on grappling with truth? Are you a metaphor-maker? Are you content to live with abstractions? The word, says Dorothy Sayers, always needs to become flesh.
I can think of another instance in which a piece of fruit had cosmological significance, but this time we’ll focus on Newton’s apple:
Now, when Isaac Newton observed a certain relationship between and likeness between the behavior of the falling apple and that of the circling planets, it might be said with equal plausibility either that he argued by analogy from the apple to a theory of astronomy, or that while evolving a theory of astronomical mathematics he suddenly perceived its application to the apple. But it would scarcely be exact to say that, in the former case, he absurdly supposed the planets to be but apples of a larger growth, with seeds in them; or that, in the latter case, he had spun out a purely abstract piece of isolated cerebration that, oddly enough, turned out to be true about apples, though the movements of the planets themselves had no existence outside Newton’s mathematics. Newton, being a rational man, concluded that the two kinds of behavior resembled each other – not because the planets had copied the apples or the apples copied the planets, but because both were examples of the working of one and the same principle.
-Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, pp. 124-125
Doesn’t it seem like this story could have come out of a fairy tale? This is one of the reasons I am glad I was encouraged to read Polanyi: he reminds us that science and imagination cannot be, and therefore are never, separated. Newton’s articulation of the law of gravity was a massive act of the imagination which saw an explanation of the workings of the cosmos in a falling apple.
It almost sounds as if he were a poet. Keats heard a nightingale and thought of ‘Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’ Newton saw a falling apple and thought of the workings of the galaxy. Chesterton’s idea that everything is poetic really isn’t that far fetched.
The story also reminds us of the importance of analogies. As a preacher it reminds me that analogies are important for engaging the imagination, which in turn can lead to a better grasp of the truth. Call it a reminder of the need for ‘whimsical’ preaching.
In my mind, at least, I always believed that the ‘imagination’ had to do with images. Hence I always believed that I did not have a good imagination, for I was never good at producing mental images. Even when my football coach told me that I needed to visualize a game happening in my mind, I couldn’t produce it. The Waterboy (Adam Sandler reference), however, could do it quite well.
As a young preacher this especially bothered me. Early on I read a lot of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons. He was a master of images: a spider hanging over a fire comes to mind (from Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God). I read that, and it moved me, yet I still couldn’t draw up the image of it in my mind. Even now, as I write, I try to force the image into my mind and it just doesn’t come easy. But, here’s the but, the idea is there even if the image is not. And even without a mental image, the idea still comes to me with power and force.
I have never been one to insert myself into stories, at least not for the most part. I don’t picture myself standing in the multitudes as Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, nor do I picture myself standing at the foot of the cross. But that sermon has come to me with force nonetheless, and so has the cross. The images aren’t there, but the ideas are, and I do not believe that they are less forceful.
Let me move on to the point here. In his essay entitled Image and Imagination (from a book with the same name), C.S. Lewis has a mock-dialogue on the subject of what the imagination, or, more specifically, what an imagined thing is. One of the points he makes there is that an imagined thing cannot simply be an image (or what we might call a mental picture). For instance, using the example of an imagined tower, he makes the point that an imagined tower is not the same thing as a mental image of a tower:
Take away from the tower all its implications and it ceases to be an imagined thing and becomes merely an image. But images are not enough: for the way in which they affect us depends, not on their content as images, but on what they are taken to be. Mention a tower, or a king, or a dog, in a poem or tale, and they come to us not in the nakedness of pictured form and colour, but with all the associations of towerhood, kinghood, and doghood (Image and Imagination, p. 44).
Let me stay with the idea of a tower here. If you picture a tower in your mind, what do you picture? Do you imagine its foundation? Do you imagine each brick that it consists of? Do you imagine the particles of each brick? The mortar? Each piece of furniture? The subtle shadows depending on how the sun is shining? And when we introduce the sun, we stretch outside of the tower, to the world in which the tower exists. Do you imagine the sun? Do you imagine the dirt or grass outside the tower? Do you imagine the country in which the tower sits? Or the world in which the country sits? Or the universe in which the world exists?
The answer to all of these questions is likely ‘No.’ Therefore, Lewis is arguing, to truly imagine something, to imagine it with any sort of depth, is not simply to have a bare mental picture of it. That kind of picture is not worth a thousand words. The thousand words come from the context surrounding the image. We are stretching ourselves out from a bare picture of one object to entire worlds. But as we stretch out, we also narrow our focus in on individual blades of grass. Our image has grown substantially, and become substantially more detailed. We now have more than an image, we have a story. We have moved from the image of a castle, to a specific castle, in a specific country, in a specific world, in a specific universe. Whether this castle, world, or universe actually exists is irrelevant at this point.
Lewis goes on,
On this point I speak with some authority, having been an extreme visualist, and having learned that this unruly power – in truth not the ally of imagination, but a mere nuisance to it – must be corrected and restrained in dealing with literature. Our imagination uses our images for poetical purposes, much as a child uses material objects for its games. An imaginative man can make of very scanty and crude images all he needs for appreciation of the greatest books, as a child worth its salt can make a liner or a railway station out of the first two or three bits of furniture it finds in the nursery. It is not the children with the costly toys who play best: or if they do, they do it in spite of the toys (p. 45).
Lewis is arguing that having a good imagination does not demand our having good mental pictures. In fact, the pictures can be a hindrance to the imagination. Which brings me back to where I began.
Images are frowned upon in the Scriptures. The third commandment immediately comes to mind. One of the problems with us, as a species, is that we want to craft images, whether in the mind or with our hands. One of the Hebrew words the KJV translates ‘imagine’ has to do with making a ‘form,’ another has do with etching or plowing, creating lines. These are always frowned upon as mental acts. Perhaps the reason for this is that the creating of forms, mentally, actually causes us to lose our perspective of bigger things, and smaller things as well. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the whole world. Focus on an image of a castle and forget the grains of sand that hold it together. And in the process of losing the world and the sand, you also lose any emotional affect the castle might have – you lose the affective mood or flavor. But move from the image to the ideas – castlehood – and now you have something. You have the universe, the world, the nations, the counties, the cities, the dirt, the grass, kings, knights, princesses in distress, and you have a mood that those objects set. And it will be the mood, most likely, that moves you emotionally.
To bring this back to the examples I used earlier of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount or dying on the cross, let me say this: As for the cross, if I focus on the image of a man being crucified, perhaps it will evoke something within me, like horror or sadness. But these emotions are nearly animal (animal spirits, as Jonathan Edwards called them). They are physical reactions as much as they are mental, they are a reflex against horrible sights. But if you go beyond the image, outside of it, and into the details, that’s where we find meaning. We have a man dying on a particular cross, on a particular day, at a particular place, in a particular world, for a particular purpose. All of this demands context, and bare image cannot supply it. It must come to me as an idea, or as a story, or a poem, or what have you, if it is to have true imaginative force. This is precisely what poets tend to do. They take small objects and relate them to the world, or even the cosmos. They look at a Grecian urn and end up thinking about flowery tales, deities, and priests offering sacrifices. Or they take a nightingale and, before you know it, they are thinking about ‘perilous seas, in faery lands forelorn.’
I do not mean by all this that one should not have mental pictures. What I do mean is that the common notion of the imagination simply as something that supplies mental images is wrong, and deadly (as far as the imagination is concerned). Someone who uses their mind to build castles in the sky is useless. Someone who can tell me a story about castles in the sky is quite useful.
Perhaps this post is an attempt to justify my own mental bent, or justifying my own way of imagining. But I hope that will encourage anyone who is not an ‘extreme visualist.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t have a good imagination. In fact, you may be better off.